Friday, September 29, 2006

Exit Strategy

I bumped into an old classmate yesterday while I was wandering around a local bookstore. This girl was the Marion Hawthorne of my elementary school (for you Harriet the Spy fans) – not exceptionally pretty, but tall, smart, and athletic. Within the little world of my grade eight class she wielded enormous power, and not always benevolently. The last time I bumped into her was about six months ago at a demonstration class for the local "Preschool of the Arts." Her five-year-old daughter was in attendance; lanky and confident, she was a reproduction of her mother at that age, moving with great seriousness through the steps of her dance, kerchief waved aloft over her head. Bub, meanwhile, hung back nervously on the outskirts of the circle, unconsciously mimicking my own younger self.

So when "Marion" and I crossed paths this morning we recognized one another easily and stopped for a brief chat. While we made small talk I took stock of my appearance: unwashed hair and glasses (bad); blue jeans and white t-shirt (could be worse); plastic Gerber spoons sticking out of my jacket pocket (didn’t actually notice those until later). By the time this assessment was complete, we had basically exhausted our limited repertoire of topics (her daughter, my son, the bookstore), and the familiar social anxiety kicked in: What is my exit strategy in this situation? How do we signal that it’s time for the conversation to end? We cast about in increasing desperation for new topics, and in the end it went something like this:

Marion: [awkward pause]

Me: [awkward pause, eyes flicking away]

Marion: Well, have fun looking through the store!

Me: [awkward attempt at mildly funny repartee, followed by hasty exit]

It was almost as bad as the worst of all exit-strategy dilemmas: popcorn prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with this ritual of the small-group Bible study, popcorn prayer involves six or seven people sitting, heads bowed, while people randomly pray as they feel so inclined. It’s designed, I think, as an alternative to praying in turn around the circle and is meant to alleviate the pressure on people like myself who feel uncomfortable praying aloud in front of an audience. Most of the time it works – but only if there is someone clearly designated both to begin and end the session. On one memorable occasion, I recall, the designated prayer-ender had to go out and answer the phone. My heart-rate escalated; I started to sweat. My exit strategy had just left the room, and it seemed quite plausible that we would have to stay here, praying aloud, or else sitting in awkward silence while everyone waited for me to take a turn, until it was time to leave for work the following morning.

This anxiety of being without an exit strategy has only been exacerbated by the advent of the electronic age. As an email conversation proceeds back and forth in a flurry of epic-length tomes over the course of a couple of days, my stress-level gradually mounts. How, exactly, do we terminate the conversation? Who will be the one to "kill this thread" as the BabyCenter lingo goes, to send that final, unanswered email? Generally, there seem to be two options: either one person goes abruptly silent (awkward, no matter whether you’re the silencer or the silencee), or else there is that torturous petering out, the brief notes of "Thanks, I’ll have to try that!" and "No problem – good luck!"

So if we’re having a great conversation and I suddenly go silent, don’t worry that I’m offended by something you said. It’s just that I’ve never known how to make a graceful exit.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Lit-Crit 101

Most of my memories from my undergraduate literary theory class revolve around the professor. She had that academic-pretty look – ear-length blunt-cut curly hair, thin arms, big woolen sweaters (this was 1992; it was a good look for her). She had an English accent, a frighteningly deep knowledge of French feminism, and a gift for humour that made it worthwhile rolling out of bed on those cold winter mornings to make it to her 8:30 classes on Plato, Derrida, and Althusser.

I remember less about the subject-matter of that course than I do about the professor’s personal life: there was a story that had us all in stitches about her three-year-old daughter sticking a pea up her nose, and there were stories, too, about her two sisters still living in Britain on public assistance. These anecdotes gave her an intriguingly Cinderella-like aura: her sisters were neither mean nor ugly nor step-, but there was a fairy-tale starkness about their diverging fates: those two older sisters on the dole vs. the one rising academic star being paid to write books about the Brontë sisters and appearing on TV programs about writers and writing.

Hero-worship aside, I did manage to absorb a few basic principles of literary criticism. I learned that we weren’t allowed to call Shakespeare a genius anymore, and that it was both asking for trouble and personally embarrassing to pass judgment on the quality of Wuthering Heights (especially if you refer to the author as "Emily" or, worse, "Emily Jane"). Perhaps the lesson I absorbed best from that class was that the key to successful scholarship in the humanities is to take an apparently self-evident principle and prove the opposite. (That is a trick I still use as a teacher. This summer a student came to me with the following thesis statement: "In this essay it will be argued that children need a loving home in order to grow and thrive." After struggling for several minutes to coerce this nightmare of a thesis into a form that wouldn’t make me scream and pull my hair out when forced to read the final product, I finally hit on the solution: "Why not argue the opposite?" The student ended up submitting a fascinating essay on the ways in which Anne Shirley and Harry Potter benefit from the neglect and abuse they suffer in early childhood.)

As a group, my fellow students and I adored the professor, grappled with the often baffling readings, and occasionally dug in our heels and rose up against ideas that were so counter-intuitive as to be offensive and disturbing. One of the most cherished ideas the professor worked to pry from our tightly gripped humanist fists was the notion of a universal human family. So-called universal ideals, she explained, were simply projections of class, racial, and gender privilege, where the norm is defined as middle-class, white, and male, and anything that departs from that is relegated to special-interest-group status. (Everyone is universal, it would seem, but some are more universal than others.) When we think we recognize a sense of kinship with another culture, she suggested, what we’re really doing is projecting our own values, a fundamentally aggressive act of cultural imperialism.

There is much that is persuasive about this argument. In some ways it’s also a shockingly optimistic stance, one that supposes we can treat others humanely without recognizing ourselves in them. It’s the difference between true religious tolerance, for instance, and the faux-tolerance that insists that everybody subscribe to a shared Doctrine of Blandness so that, having eliminated all differences of belief, we can all live in peace and harmony (John Lennon’s "Imagine" with a few crystals and spiritual feelings thrown in). It’s an argument that sees greater value in the challenging, culturally specific writings of African writer Chinua Achebe than in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (a series I love because it makes Botswana seem so much like England).

Increasingly, however, I have been coming across pleas for a return to the universal, assertions that the only way out of the "clash of civilizations" in which we find ourselves is the recognition that people are fundamentally alike. And these are not naïve or unexamined clichés; they come from people who have been around the post-modern block a time or two but feel, nonetheless, that the baby of transcendence has been thrown out with the bath-water of cultural imperialism. The goal of cultural diversity may not, after all, be best served by the kind of thinking my Lit-Crit prof was selling in those early-morning classes. Because if we have no basic shared humanity, no common ground to walk on, then what reason do we have to communicate with those who are so hopelessly different from ourselves? "Help us, universal human family," we seem to be saying, "you’re our only hope."

And this is where Lit-Crit 101 overlaps with blogging. One of my favourite movie lines is from the C.S. Lewis biopic Shadowlands: "We read to know we’re not alone." And that goes double for blogging. As Wordgirl put it recently, "We blog, we comment, we seek out people whom we assume are just like us because they make us feel comfortable and safe and liked." This is not necessarily a bad thing – it is enormously comforting, life-saving even, to find our fears, our guilt, and our shortcomings reflected in another woman’s experience. It’s even more intoxicating to see in someone else our own idiosyncratic quirks and tastes, to discover that there’s another person who also devoured the Keeping Days series as a child and secretly wanted to be Tish Sterling (okay, I haven’t found anybody yet who picked up on that reference a few days ago, but I thought I’d throw it out there again and see if I get a nibble).

The Internet enables us to surround ourselves with the like-minded, to create ever more homogenous circles of those with whom we share an instant rapport, who respond to our rantings and musings with an instant and effortless "Me too!" When I read new blogs, I don’t look for people from whom I can learn about other cultures, religions, experiences, and personalities. I look for people just like me.

And yet. Maybe you’re one of those people whose words ring so true for me that I feel like I might have written them myself. Except that you’re an atheist. Or a lesbian. A "P" on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Or even an American. And that conjunction of similarity and difference gives me a glimpse of something deeper than our categories and labels, a glimpse of something that clearly is not a "universal humanity," but may be something like it, something to build on. It might not be enough to resolve the clash of civilizations and bring about world peace (I make no promises about that). But it’s a start.

*****

To everyone who commented on my last post: your words have made me smile, and laugh, and cry. Reading them makes me feel hopeful - and grateful. Thank you so much.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Numbers

Eight months after our initial interview, we finally went in today for Bub’s speech therapy reassessment. Since his first appointment, we’ve been through a group class for parents that taught strategies for speech promotion, and this meeting was meant to serve as the gateway to actual one-on-one therapy for Bub. If his sessions begin less than a year after my original phone call, I guess we can count ourselves lucky.

At our first appointment, back in February, I was very aware of my desire for our family to put our best foot forward. The Pie was still breastfeeding, so all four of us went in together, and I nursed while Bub interacted with the therapist, shouting "Pop!" when she blew bubbles at him and displaying no comprehension whatsoever of her instructions for him to "Give bubbles to mama!" A student sat in on our session, jotting down notes in her three-ring notebook, and I kept glancing at our reflection in the two-way mirrors at the back of the room, looking at my family through her eyes and appreciating how charming we seemed. Bub was jumping up and down in delight at the bubbles, and the Pie was at her most flirtatious, cooing eagerly at the adoring masses. For my part, I had done my best to impress the professionals with my attentive parenting, even going so far as to prepare several pages of typewritten notes listing Bub’s vocabulary (all 113 words of it) and his characteristic speech patterns. I could see the therapists exchanging glances, almost hear them thinking "What a nice family!"

Then it was time to leave and I realized I had failed to bring juice or crackers to lure Bub back to the car. And as hubby picked up the now screaming, flailing Bub, I realized that we were leaving a trail through the carpeted lobby, a trail of corn-like bits and pieces that were emerging from Bub’s diaper as he struggled to escape my husband’s vice-like grip. And then I abandoned the baby in the lobby to help pin down the Bub while hubby changed the diaper that had exploded up his back and down both his legs and onto my husband’s coat. And then we retrieved the sobbing baby, grabbed a business card, and escaped, just as the long-suffering janitor arrived to clean the carpet. Finally, we hauled our crying baby and our completely frantic son out to the car as several pretty undergraduates looked on in horror, visibly resolving never to have children of their own.

So I was hoping today’s appointment would go better.

"How have things been going?" Becky asked when we arrived.

"We’ve seen enormous improvements," I replied, "though I don’t know how his progress relates to his age group – whether he is catching up or keeping pace or falling behind."

That is what I’ve been telling myself, and others, for months now, whenever I’ve been asked about Bub’s progress. And I think I even thought I believed it, that I was prepared for anything. But when we sat down to actually score his questionnaire, I received the first shock: the numbers from his last visit. We had been told that he was "below average" (um, yeah – that’s why I brought him in to begin with) and that his receptive language was behind his expressive language (an unusual pattern - usually children understand much more than they can say). Tactfully, the therapist had failed to mention the exact numbers. There it was in black and white: "%ile: Expressive: 23, Receptive: 5." While I was still reeling from that news, she calculated the results of today’s test: in receptive language he’s up to the 18th percentile (a huge improvement, and a relief since it was his low receptive-language score that flagged him for autism assessment), but his expressive language score has dropped back to the 13th percentile.

The therapist became suddenly very urgently optimistic, putting great emphasis on the positives: the two numbers are closer together than they were last February, creating a more "typical" profile. The improvement in receptive language shows that he’s still learning. His therapy sessions will focus on boosting his expressive language score, getting him to use language more functionally.

But all that hasn’t stopped the tape-recorder in my head that keeps saying, "But he’s smart! He can count to 39!"

I’ve gotten used to referring to Bub as "speech-delayed." It’s a factual description, and nicely optimistic as well, as if his speech were wandering around Heathrow airport waiting for a connecting flight, as if there were a voice on the loudspeaker saying, "The arrival of your son’s speech has been unavoidably delayed. Please remain seated and it will be here shortly."

I know that the numbers do not define who Bub is, that he’s still the intense, quirky, gentle, joyous boy he was this morning.

So why do I feel like someone just punched me in the gut and I need to go to bed for a week?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Reading His Mind

Since reading all your lovely compliments about my mothering skills in response to Friday’s post (with more than a hint of disbelief and panic – "Don’t they know how often I neglect the children?" I wanted to ask), I’ve been second-guessing myself a little bit. How do I know that my suppositions about my children’s thoughts and motivations are correct? What if they are simply a projection of my own personality or – worse – my preconceived ideas about who and what my children will become?

Case in Point #1: I picked up a new toy yesterday, a wooden kitchen set with red- and blue-painted cups, plates, bowls, and cutlery. I was particularly thrilled with this purchase for two reasons: (1) it encourages pretend play (one of my latest Bub-related projects), and (2) the smooth, sturdy pieces are so appealing I want to play with them myself. There’s even a pair of salt-and-pepper shakers as well as two little green-and-white gingham napkins to tuck into the little cups. We’ve already had several impromptu tea parties, and the pretending abounds. This morning, Bub was playing with the salt and pepper so I asked him, "What letters do you see?"

"P and S" he replied in that lilting, high-pitched voice that is always like a little arrow in my heart.

"P-p-p-pepper," I explained, "and s-s-s-salt."

And then Bub did what I knew he would do: he gave the vocal equivalent of that little "zip-it" hand motion Dr. Evil uses when he wants Seth Green to stop talking.

He does this, I believe, because he has an innate hatred of learning, one that is surpassed only by his deep desire to already know everything. Bub evinces less curiosity than any child I’ve seen, but he thrives on demonstrating his full command of areas already within his realm of competence. He delights in counting to 39, but he cuts me off quickly if I attempt to tell him about the number 40 (especially if he’s already triumphantly ended with "thirty-ten!").

This, at least, is my totally unproven supposition. Alternatively, he may simply have found my impromptu tutorial to be an annoying interference in his project of liberally salting and peppering his imaginary food.

Case in Point #2: I’ve been working on a ludicrously kitschy dance-hits-of-the-’80s CD in response to Bobita’s "The Best of the Worst" contest, so I put it on yesterday as a break from our usual Sunday-morning fare of old-time hymns. No modern choruses for us – we like the real oldies but goodies, and hubby occasionally adapts the lyrics to suit our family: "Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed, / Where’er I turn my eye: / If I survey the ground I tread, / Or gaze upon the Pie!"

So when "Hymns We Love" was replaced by Twisted Sister, Bub unleashed a torrent of protest. It’s not unusual for him to scream in rage when I put on a CD, and I typically assume that he is angry because the music in question was not personally requested and selected by him. I paused yesterday, though, wondering if I’ve been unjust: perhaps I have underestimated his sensitivity, his enjoyment of the peaceful quiet that had been so rudely broken by that intolerably peppy ’80s beat.

I decided to go over the evidence to test my theory that it is tyranny rather than genuine sensitivity that provoked this particular outburst. Bub has always loved music. Even in the womb, I could always coax out a kick by sitting down at the piano (unless those were kicks of agonized protest – how would I know?). I'll concede that the pre-natal evidence is inconclusive, but the post-natal evidence is a bit better: there were several months during the Bub’s infancy when "Baby Beluga" was the only thing that would make him stop crying. And one of the highlights of our trip to the fair last weekend was Bub’s overt enjoyment of the Johnny Cash cover band playing in the bandshell while we ate supper (Bub kept scrambling down from the picnic table to get his groove on in the grassy clearing between tables).

Having demonstrated to my own satisfaction that Bub does not consider music to be some kind of parental torture device, I left the CD in and gave him a hug, careful not to offend his sensibilities by singing along, clapping my hands, or tapping my feet (and you’d be surprised at how difficult it is to refrain from tapping something when you’re listening to Dexy’s Midnight Runners). After a few minutes, I started to see a smile lurking in the corners of his mouth. Then I caught him tapping his fingers to the beat of the Pointer Sisters and skipping and hopping in time to Quiet Riot. It was a bit surprising to see how few of my favourite ’80s hits are actually suitable for small children – music from that era always seems innocent to me because it’s so upbeat and reminiscent of my own childhood innocence. My nostalgia was not unmixed with a certain degree of parental horror, though, as Bub and I joined hands and danced around the living room shouting, "My blood runs cold! My memory has just been sold!"

When the CD was done, Bub met my eyes, grinned, and said appreciatively, "Songs." And I nodded in return and carefully refrained from saying, "I told you so."

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Cars on Quilts

Andrea from the Fishbowl recently sent me this because I told her that looking at it somehow made me feel like crying. (I haven’t yet figured out why. Is it that I feel uprooted? That I dread being uprooted next year when we move to a new town? Or is it what Olympia Dukakis’s character in Moonstruck claims is the reason men have affairs: the fear of death?)

Enclosed in the envelope was an appealingly sturdy 2"x3" card and the following instructions: "You may write, doodle, cut and paste – whatever. Free your mind and be creative!" Andrea is obviously a good judge of human nature (or my nature, at least, though we’ve only just met) because she added, "No excuses – just do it."

As I implied a couple of posts ago, freedom and creativity are not exactly my strong suits. My right brain and I are barely on speaking terms. But the "cut and paste" prompt reminded me of the sole artistic endeavour I’ve ever truly enjoyed: making collages from snippets cut out of magazines and catalogues. Most of my teenage diaries are covered in these collages made out of anything that caught my eye: a cute boy on a motorcycle, a spray of yellow flowers, a battered old copy of Madame Bovary. During my last year of high school, my contribution to a homemade Christmas-gift exchange was a series of biographies of my five closest friends in which I predicted their futures and illustrated them with magazine-snippet collages. I wish I had kept copies of these stories – I recall pairing off my best friend with a farmer from Penetanguishine; in real life she married a doctor and lives outside of Toronto. Another friend I sent off to the big city to earn fame and fortune as an opera singer, whereas in real life she stayed right here in London and began her career as a famous opera singer much closer to home. The gifts I received from this exchange were equally memorable, including a clothes-peg reindeer necklace that I wore each Christmas until all the glued-on eyes fell off, and some wonderful hand-drawn penis-envy underpants from a zany friend who went on to become a chiropractor rather than the professional cheerleader I had predicted in my bio.

So in the spirit of rediscovering my teenage self, I grabbed my scissors this morning and produced this:



"What does it mean?" hubby asked when I showed him the finished product.

"I don’t know," I replied, "but it’s something to do with fall."

"And cars."

"And old vs. new …and masculine vs. feminine. And a kitty."

Not sure what all that adds up to, but when I let my right-brain do its thing, that's what it came up with: a few cars, a quilt, a pinecone, a kitty, and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Hep

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We took Bub to the fair last weekend, where we happened upon a live Birds of Prey exhibit. Bub and I slipped into the back of the auditorium just as the trainer was unveiling a desert hawk. "Look!" I exclaimed, kneeling down and pointing with exaggerated enthusiasm. It has always been difficult to direct Bub’s gaze – pointing gestures do not come naturally to him – but on this occasion he saw immediately what I meant and took off down the centre aisle, legs pumping at top speed, shouting "It’s a bird!" I dashed after him and managed to snatch him up about five rows from the front. As his outraged howls rent the air (met with mostly sympathetic glances), I noticed that instead of struggling in my arms, he was leaning back against me. It wasn’t the restraint of his freedom or frustrated desire that prompted his wails – it was the realization that he had done the wrong thing, that he had somehow failed to discern the rules governing this unfamiliar environment and had made a public spectacle of himself. (I should note before moving on here that Bub calmed down in time to thoroughly enjoy the tawny owl and red-tailed hawk, and he forgot his embarrassment sufficiently to leap from his seat in excitement every time a bird swooped overhead.)

It has always been important to Bub to do things correctly. He responds delightedly to words of praise and is liberal in giving praise to others ("Good boy!" he’ll exclaim when his sister fits a puzzle piece into its place, his tone one of warm congratulation). On occasions when he knows that he’s broken the rules, he promptly demands a hug as if to reassure himself that he is still loved and accepted even though he just threw mommy’s Napoleon Dynamite DVD into the kitchen garbage.

And yet, for all his addiction to praise and approval, he is still fiercely independent. I considered using the adverbs "sturdily" or "staunchly" in that sentence, but they fail to do justice to the ferocity with which he resists any attempt at guidance or correction. To the best of my knowledge he has no Dutch blood in his veins, yet he often reminds me of my best friend’s favourite Dutch-man joke: "Wooden shoes, wooden heads, wooden listen." Bub is a child who will spend twenty minutes trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and he’ll slap away any hand that tries to show him a better way.

Since the Pie has started to acquire language, I’ve been startled to see how naturally she does things that Bub has learned only after a long and sometimes painful process of instruction on our part and conscious effort on his. When Bub points at something, you can see him carefully folding down his fingers, struggling to wave his hand in the right direction. When the Pie points at something, all her energies go pulsing down her arm and out the tip of her index finger – you can almost hear the pop and the word "Alohomora!" After much demonstration, Bub has finally learned that he can use the word "Help!" to summon parental assistance (in preference to screaming in rage and frustration); hot on his heels, the Pie has picked up the word from her brother and now uses it even more frequently than her previous favourites, "mama" and "kitty."

The first time the Pie brought me a closed container and held it out with the simple instruction of "Hep!" I was amazed and delighted. That was a week ago. Since then, I have learned to fear and respect the tyranny of the word. No longer will my daughter sit happily with a toy while mummy reads the newspaper; now it’s "hep hep hep" from dawn until dusk. What has startled me most, perhaps, is her lack of stubbornness, how readily she gives up in the face of difficulty. She will take three, maybe four stabs at getting the oval into her Tupperware shape-sorter, and then she’ll unfold my hand, place the oval on it, and command, "Hep!" This is something the Bub would never do – he would sooner eat a roast beef sandwich or voluntarily get out of the bathtub than invite parental interference in the sacred realm of his toys. "Help" is something he solicits only when absolutely necessary for things like opening the piano or moving a heavy chair – adult tasks that lie outside the sphere within which he expects himself to do things perfectly on his own.

Perfectionism is not necessarily a desirable trait, of course, but I’ll admit that I’ve been a bit alarmed at my daughter’s lack of persistence. "You can do it!" I’ll say encouragingly, putting the Tupperware square back into her hand, only to have it thrust back in my face with a wail of protest. "Hep!" she insists stubbornly (she’s more stubborn than she looks, this one), so by way of a compromise I decide that we can accomplish this task together. We both grasp the yellow square, her small hand in my larger one, and manoeuver it through the hole. And as the Pie applauds appreciatively, I realize that this is the point of the exercise for her: not to do it correctly, or quickly, or easily, but to do it together. It’s a lucky thing that our children teach us how to parent them, I think, because I’m not always that quick on the uptake and sometimes I need a little help.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Gaa-aah!

So I’ve got a couple of ideas knocking about in my head for today’s post, and I stop to check my comments and – [insert high-pitched screeching sound here as my brain crashes to a halt] – I see a comment from benbirdy1.

Yes, people, that would be Catherine Newman visiting my blog, and it’s like that L.M. Montgomery story (in Magic for Marigold maybe?) when the Queen of England shows up at the doorstep and there’s no cake in the house. Or maybe it wasn’t the Queen of England – a Russian princess, maybe. Royalty, anyhow, and I’m racing around the house checking my hair and saying "Crap! Crap! Crap!" and then kicking myself because I don’t know any good swears (wait, I know! Frack me!) and looking over my posts from the last couple of days – a random list of unrelated ideas preceded by a woodenly chronological account of my son’s health problems – and I think "Didn’t your mother tell you to always wear nice underwear in case you get hit by a bus" and then I think "Beep beep beep!" as the split infinitive alarm goes off in my head, and I wonder, did she notice that I’ve, like, totally plagiarized her writing style?

Deep breath.

Suffice it to say that I’m easily intimidated by fame and totally without HBM’s enviable capacity not to be impressed by people. Or freak out when those people visit my blog on a day when I haven’t showered yet.

*****

Back to my regularly scheduled blogging.

Before the above freak-out, I was planning to write about an article I read a few years ago studying the writing process of "excellent" academic writers (mostly graduate students). The researchers found that the writers used a variety of tactics: some wrote freely and spontaneously, modifying their ideas through a succession of drafts, while others planned carefully and made few changes to their first draft. The second group wrote more quickly, but the first group reported more enjoyment in their writing.

I’ve always been a planner, an organizer, a bullet-lister: back when I would prepare my essays by hand (with a pen! and paper!) I colour-coded my points with red, yellow, and blue pencil crayons (NEVER green or purple – can you imagine the confusion? the chaos?). I determined the path of my argument in advance and never strayed from it. (Another memorable observation from the study: while the pre-planners tended to produce well-organized, convincing arguments, the fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants writers were better able to acknowledge conflicting ideas and produce a subtle, complex response.) For me, all that note-taking and colour-coding usually functioned as a way of postponing the torturous and terror-filled process of actually writing the essay: I put it off as long as possible and heaved a sigh of relief when that first draft was in the bank and I could tinker with words and phrases at my leisure.

That need for structure may be to blame for my loss of interest in writing fiction. Not that fiction has no structure, but novels like Emily of New Moon and The Keeping Days convinced me that creativity must take place in a trance-like state in which one simply submits to the whims of the muse. If that was true of fiction, it was even more true of poetry, which I avoided like the plague: when forced to write a poem by my creative writing teacher in high school, I took refuge in a sonnet, comforted by the rigid 14-line structure and iambic pentameter.

With my history of schedules and structures and colour-coded notepads, I’ve found that one of the most liberating things about blogging has been the freedom to occasionally, sometimes, throw down a post without knowing in advance where it’s going to go. I still have a penchant for bullet lists (and one of the reasons I keep this template is the pretty little flower-like bullets it produces), but every once in awhile I come up with an idea for a post and then stop myself, thinking, "Sure, the Teen Missions anecdotes are fun, but what is your point?" And then I think, "Why don’t I start writing and find out?"

It’s not skydiving, or backpacking across China, but the pursuit of adventure has to start somewhere, right?

(We'll see how long that madcap throw-caution-to-the-winds approach lasts now that FAMOUS PEOPLE are visiting my blog. Well, um, one famous person. At least Waiting for Birdy was showing up on "Random Books from my Library" on the sidebar, so she knows I'm not just some random stalker that visited her blog. I'm a stalker who bought her book.)

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Things I Learned Yesterday

From the newspaper: that it may not be too late to get some use out of that old banana clip.

I’ve been waiting for this day since I first snatched up a pair of huge dangly hoop earrings at RW five years ago. Fashion experts now have this advice: "Wear mini skirts with leggings, tights, leg warmers and flat boots, for a modern look, that’s both comfortable and easy to wear." Don’t get me wrong – I’m excited about the long over lean style. But I never thought I’d live to see the day when "leg warmers" and "a modern look" could be used in the same sentence (much less a sentence with that many unnecessary commas). It’s like the Cylon raiders returning after forty years to wipe out humanity. Only scarier.

From Peppa Pig: that the British call training wheels "stabilizers."

As in, "That’s a baby bicycle! You have stay-bil-oi-zahs!" (What could be cuter than a pink pig with an English accent squealing, "But I don’t WANT to have stay-bil-oi-zahs anymore!")

From my family doctor: that it’s hard to keep a straight face when a trusted medical professional attempts to calm your baby by asking, "What’s happenEEENG?" in a heavy Mexican accent laid on overtop of his usual heavy Pakistani accent.

From my daughter: that banana-flavoured amoxicillin is "Yummy!"

(Not sure I believe her on this one: just a whiff from that bottle brings back a host of unpleasant childhood memories.)

From my husband: that you can never be too careful what you say to a blogger.

Hubby (after reading yesterday’s comments about the Creamy Deluxe frosting): Does it make it easier to be a bad parent when we know that everyone else is too?

Me (smiling happily): That’s what mommy-blogging is all about!

Hubby (pondering): I guess the good moms don’t have time to blog all day.

(Pause. Hubby realizes the inevitable. Sigh.)

Hubby: And yes, you can quote me on that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Worst Birthday Ever

As a November baby, Bub faces certain disadvantages in life. He will never be the kid who gets to invite his whole class over for a pool party; he won’t even get to host a tobogganing party as my February birthday allowed me to do in eighth grade (tobogganing followed by hot chocolate and an air band competition – it was 1985 and my parents’ end-table doubled as a synthesizer for my rendition of Howard Jones’ "Things Can Only Get Better").

Nevertheless, Bub lucked out last year – November 12th was the last warm, sunny day of a very long fall season. I always have ambitions of throwing a really spectacular birthday party, complete with hand-crafted invitations and Thomas-the-Train-themed décor, but last year, as always, I ended up celebrating with immediate family members only and serving a Duncan Hines cake with Creamy Deluxe frosting. (No advertising dollars for me here, never fear – because my point is that Creamy Deluxe frosting sucks, and I’m a sucky mother for using it.) Bub got a wagon ride to the park and a few trips down the slide with his #1 Special Aunt, and then came home in a crummy mood (because toddlers are always in a crummy mood when you especially want them to have fun).

It was only after supper that we realized the reason for his miserable-ness: we set him down from his high chair, and when he tried to take a step forward his leg buckled underneath him. What ensued was a frantic attempt at recollection: When was the last time anyone saw the Bub walking? He had been fine before he left for the park, but he hadn’t actually put weight on his right foot since then – he’d come home in the wagon and moved straight into the high chair for dinner (his festive birthday dinner, which is always more exciting when you have, like, a broken ankle).

The upshot of all this analysis and instant-replay was our realization that Bub had probably wrenched his ankle while coming down the slide on my sister’s lap. Hubby had been pushing the Pie around in her stroller and hadn’t actually seen the incident – there had been some low-level whining and crying, nothing that sounded like a shriek of pain, but my sister is sometimes more exuberant than careful, so it’s possible that Bub’s foot may have been trapped between her leg and the side of the slide without her noticing.

A trip to the E.R. and an X-ray revealed no broken bones, but based on the Bub’s yelps of pain when his ankle was manipulated, the doctor thought he might have a crack in a part of the ankle that is difficult to see on the X-ray. So he came home with a half-cast and a lot of bandaging around his leg, unable to walk or crawl or tell us what hurts.

Aside from being the suckiest birthday ever (the Creamy Deluxe frosting really takes second place to the not-being-able-to-walk part, I think), what this incident represents for me now is how rapidly my demands of life can change. On an ordinary day, I have certain ideas of what I’m entitled to, of what I need to be satisfied that I’ve had a pretty decent day. On November 11th of last year, a good day might include the following:

  • No major meltdowns (for children or mother).
  • A good cup of coffee with my breakfast.
  • A half hour here and there to read a book (Robin Hobb’s The Tawny Man trilogy at that point, I think).
  • An episode or two of Smallville in the evening without more than three interruptions from a crying baby. (Lex Luthor! How did I forget him for my best TV-characters meme?)

(The list now might look a bit different: No major meltdowns. Time to read through my Bloglines. Time to write up a new post and get a few yummy comments.)

And then it was November 12 and suddenly my demands of life were different. There were no days, good or bad, there were only minutes: minutes when Bub was lying on his back, kicking his cast in the air and screaming, and minutes when Bub was not doing that. If he wasn’t miserable and in pain, I was happy – I asked no more.

If there’s an up-side to fracturing your ankle on your birthday, it’s that at least you have lots of new toys to play with when you’re immobilized and in pain. There was no-holds-barred access to apple juice and Baby Einstein; there was a new singing-and-talking bear to play with (that might otherwise have been de-batteried out of sheer parental irritation), and there was even a balloon pit set up in the corner where I could sit Bub down as if he were a six-month-old baby (a six-month-old baby who knows how to throw temper tantrums) and let him bang away at the balloons to his heart’s content.

What surprised me the most was the intensity of my grief. We had been told (correctly) that he would be up and walking again within a week (a process that was speeded up considerably when hubby took him back to the E.R. in the middle of a particularly hideous night to have the horrible and unnecessary cast removed, exposing the largest blister I’ve ever seen on the heel of such a tiny, vulnerable little foot). It wasn’t a serious injury; it wasn’t a long recovery. But for those few days I grieved for the loss of my jaunty, walking little just-turned-two-year-old – the boy who could scamper into the kitchen to show me his stuffed giraffe, or dance a little jig of joy when his daddy walked in the door. Even when he was hurling balloons around with every sign of jubilation, I still ached and mourned for the power of those chubby legs, for the determination and gusto with which he had so recently rampaged around his little world.

I can’t imagine, anymore, what it must be like to face a more permanent injury. But for a few days last November I could imagine, and it made me realize how protective those limits are, the ones that wall our minds away from the things we can’t bear to think about.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

My One-Sentence (Third-Person) Autobiography

I once taught a writing course based on a rather bizarre little textbook that required students to learn some extremely (and unnecessarily) technical grammatical terms so they could avoid writing sentences like this one:

It is the recommendation of the committee that the establishment of new guidelines for the protection and preservation of systems of accountability and governance be undertaken on behalf of the participants of the program for the purpose of providing guidance and direction to all service users and eligible recipients.

Of course, no one can question the value of preventing such sentences from being written, and if any of my students actually had a writing style like this one, I’m sure they would have found it very helpful to learn how to keep subject and verb close together and eliminate unnecessary jargon so that they could replace the above sentence with this one: We recommend that you train your employees to meet their clients’ needs more effectively.

In the latter half of the course, having stripped down the students’ writing to the bare minimum, the textbook focused on creative ways to build greater sentence variety using things like resumptive modifiers. To create a resumptive modifier, you do the following: (a) make a statement; (b) follow it with a noun that sums up the statement; and (c) follow that with a subordinate clause beginning with who, that, or which. Or maybe that’s a summative modifier. I don’t remember now.

Anyway, one of the assignments for that course was for students to submit a 500-word autobiographical sketch in which their lives were summed up in a single sentence full of resumptive and summative modifiers. I stole the idea from Carol Shields, actually, who uses the device very cleverly in her novel, Swann.

Since the day I realized that the average sentence on my blog is over 17 words long, I’ve been trying, with little success, to develop a more accessible writing style. So in the spirit of throwing in the towel, here is my one-sentence, 500-word autobiography:

Ms. Bubandpie was born to Protestant parents at a Catholic hospital in London, Ontario nine months to the day after the marriage of her father, Spencer, a lapsed Anglican, to Janet, a lapsed member of the United Church of Canada (a surprisingly bland denomination that combines, and reduces to the lowest common denominator, the fiery Calvinism of the Scots Presbyterians and the hymn-singing enthusiasm of the Dissenting Methodists) – the couple welcomed the arrival of this not-entirely-planned addition to the family with as much pleasure as surprise, for Janet, an idealistic woman who had entered the nursing profession from a desire to help people, had married Spencer, a reliable if unimaginative accountant, more from a desire to settle down and raise a family than from any recognition of undying passion, a pragmatic, if unromantic attitude that allowed them to create a stable and loving home even after the arrival of a second daughter three years later, a little girl whose manic hyperactivity seemed to emerge from a happiness that radiated from her too intensely to permit such mundane things as learning to read – a trait that made her very unlike her older sister, who from the age of two had insisted that her Dr. Seuss books accompany her to bed in her crib, and who graduated easily from those to the Bible stories she learned at Sunday School after her mother was born again at a Baptist church that met in the local school gymnasium, a conversion experience shared by Bubandpie (though not by her father), a girl whose shyness in social situations did not prevent her from enjoying the spotlight of the annual Christmas pageant, where her recitation of memory verses could scarcely be equalled – a performance which, unfortunately, did not boost her social confidence, for, as her teachers repeatedly complained on her report cards, she was a student who felt that one friend was enough for anyone; after moving to small town at the end of kindergarten, Bubandpie found that friend in a neighbouring seven-year-old who, despite occasional turbulence, remained her best friend even after Bubandpie discovered, at the age of fourteen, that she had fallen in love with a seventeen-year-old aspiring missionary whose red high-top Converse sneakers and British-band inspired eyeliner combined to make him irresistible, not only to Bubandpie but also to most other girls at his large Pentecostal Church, where enthusiastic worship and speaking in tongues were simply uncomfortable obstacles to the weekly worship of this dynamic and often aloof young man – a weekly training in rejection that led Bubandpie to be wildly elated when, upon her graduation from high school, she at last found herself the object of someone else’s affections: those of First Husband, a lapsed Roman Catholic who saw in her an irresistibly attractive opposite: disciplined where he was spontaneous, frugal where he was impulsive, bookish and dreamy where he was outgoing and athletic – a contrast that was, unfortunately, not perceived by Bubandpie, who romantically projected onto him all her own traits: thinking that he was creative, idealistic, and faithful, she married him a month after her graduation from university and discovered, in the five years that followed, that the traits he had admired in her – discipline and self-control – had now become to him unbearable fetters, and that the traits she had admired in him – creativity and faithfulness – had now morphed into the creative concealment of his unfaithfulness, a discovery that led to a devastating, though not acrimonious divorce, followed in short order by her remarriage to a Bible college graduate whose calm, rational demeanour was disrupted only by the startling intensity of his love for Bubandpie – a love that led him to read and report back on every book Bubandpie happened to mention, including Pride and Prejudice and Rilla of Ingleside (a sequel to Anne of Green Gables which had been the subject of her M.A. thesis), demonstrating a level of affection and commitment that could not help but win Bubandpie’s heart, so that she married him a few weeks prior to the defence of her Ph.D. thesis, a defence that began her career as an English instructor at her alma mater, where she enjoys to this day the opportunity to teach Children’s Literature, Victorian fiction, and Writing to classes whom she asks to write their own autobiographies in a single sentence of at least 500 words.

(This autobiography was written before the birth of my children; I could include them, but that would probably put me over the word limit and stretch even my ability to force everything I have to say into a single sentence.)

I'm not mean enough to turn this into a meme (or, worse, tag anyone with this horrific assignment), but if you want to try summing up your life in a single sentence in the comments, I won't hold you to a 500-word minimum...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Friday Randomness (Meme-a-licious Edition)

My Husband Had an Ironic Pseudo-Midlife-Crisis and All I Got was This Lousy T-Shirt
Hubby rolled in from the Electric Six concert last night at 3:30, muttering something enthusiastic about "Gay Bar" being even more fantastic when performed live. This is the man who loves sleep more than anyone I’ve ever met (you can read that either way: loves sleep more than anyone I’ve ever met does OR loves sleep more than he loves anyone I’ve ever met). I would post a pic of the t-shirt he got me if (a) I knew how to transfer photos from the camera to the computer, sad little techno-phobe that I am, and (b) if any of the pictures I took of myself wearing the t-shirt didn’t look like a middle-aged woman desperately trying to recapture her lost youth. It turns out that ironic pseudo-midlife-crises come in his and hers varieties.

Pitfalls of Parenting the Speech-Delayed Child
Bub has begun to appreciate the power of language to make things happen in the world around him (an essential step in language acquisition, according to his speech therapist). Six months ago, he used his words primarily for showing off: he would label objects and recite books and song lyrics, but he didn’t ask for things he wanted. Fast forward a few months, and Bub has mastered the imperative and begun experimenting with the interrogative. Hubby and I, however, are still lagging behind when it comes to resisting his pleas, especially now that he’s starting to understand the manipulative power of intonation. "More Life cereal!" he’ll plead in a desperate, choked-up voice, and I jump to pour some in his bowl, vowing that he WILL eat something other than cereal for supper, even if he doesn’t for lunch. Or, worse, he’ll hold out his video in mute appeal and then ask, with a perfect rising inflection, "Watch Baby ’Toven?" I cave every time. A solid diet of Baby Einstein videos and Life cereal can’t hurt a kid, right?

Don’t You Hate It When…
…you’re scrambling to get ready for play-group, surreptitiously arranging snacks and drinks, when you’re spotted in the act of pouring juice and forced to hand over said beverage with no further delay? And you figure, "She’s only 13 months old, she won’t drink the whole thing," only to turn around five minutes later and discover that the sippy cup is gone, missing, nowhere to be found, even after a hasty clean-up of the living room. And you finally give up and leave the house, only to return home two hours later and watch your baby make a bee-line to the kitchen cupboards, open them up, and triumphantly retrieve the sippy cup from among the mixing bowls and Tupperware?

What’s on p. 123 of the Book You’re Reading?
I was tagged for this meme by Owlhaven (isn’t that just the best name?). If you’re not doing so already, check out her "30 Days of Nothing," a project to reduce consumption for a month in order to become more mindful of how much we have and how little we truly need. It’s inspiring and challenging and, somehow, uncannily beautiful.

On with the meme.

Here are the instructions:
-Grab the book closest to you
-Open to page 123
-Scroll down to the 5th sentence
-Post the text of the next 3 sentences on your blog
-Name of the book and the author
-Tag 3 people

Because I’m a cheaty cheater, I’m going to do the book I picked up the first time I saw this meme rather than the one that was nearest me when I read Owlhaven’s tag. It’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Espresso Tales. Here are sentences 5 through 8:

"It was possible, he said, to become a partner rather earlier than that, but if I wanted to achieve that I would have to marry one of the senior partner’s daughters, and that, he said, was asking too much. I think that this was meant to be a joke, but I thought that it was in very bad taste, and I was surprised that a partner in an Edinburgh firm would speak in this way. I later discovered that Mr Monboddo only said things like that when he had had a small glass of sherry, and so I learned to distinguish between those things that were said in all seriousness and those that were not. I have always taken the view that one should never hold against a man anything that he says after twelve o’clock at night or after a glass or two of something."

A nice, forgiving policy, that one, don’t you think?

Intermission between Memes: Social Conformity for Toddlers
Instead of merely reciting books, Bub has now taken to inserting his name into them at appropriate junctures. One of his favourite books is Go, Dog, Go!, which lends itself well to that technique. His favourite line, perhaps, is "Now it is time for all dogs to go to sleep." It can be used in a variety of circumstances: "Now it is time for all Bubs to have breakfast" or "Now it is time for all Bubs to get into the car." But I’m concerned about this stifling of his individuality: if all Bubs were jumping off a cliff, would he jump too?

We Now Return to Your Regularly Scheduled Meme-ing
I’m going to tag myself for this one: Veronica Mitchell has posted a list of her top ten all-time best TV characters, based on Joss Whedon’s list of same. You know that if Joss Whedon’s doing it, it’s got to be cool, and really much the same thing could be said for Veronica Mitchell. So here’s my list:

1. Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties: "What did you think / I would do at this moment / When you’re standing before me / With tears in your eyes…" The fact that Michael J. Fox ended up marrying Tracy Pollan just makes that episode all the more romantic.

2. Duke Lavery from General Hospital (ca. 1985): Whedon already picked Anna Devane (a fantastic choice), so I’ll go with Duke. Even though her real true love was always Robert Scorpio, Duke was a romantic Scotsman with mob connections and a heart of gold – who could ask for more than that?

3. Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation: If I need to explain it, you obviously wouldn’t understand.

4. Angela Chase from My So-Called Life: One look in Angela’s eyes, and it was instant, total, and painful recognition: THAT is what it felt like to be fifteen years old.

5. Marilla Cuthbert from Anne of Green Gables: Television adaptations of beloved books can be tricky things, but Colleen Dewhurst’s interpretation wasn’t simply bang-on: my understanding of the character grew to meet the dignity, intelligence, and humour of Dewhurst’s Marilla.

6. Wesley Wyndham-Price from Angel: THE best character arc I’ve ever seen on television: his evolution from bumbling oaf to dark hero is subtle, plausible, and totally riveting. (And, yes, as I commented on Veronica’s post, I would have named my second-born son after him, if I had had a second-born son.)

7. Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls: Funniest villain on television, especially when he teams up with his very own Yoko Ono (clad all in white) to do some installation crime.

8. Miranda from Sex and the City: The best (and most under-appreciated) character on the show.

9. Bertie Wooster from Jeeves and Wooster: Hugh Laurie is hilarious on Blackadder and mesmerizing on House, but since those shows have already been mentioned I’ll put a little plug in for P.G. Wodehouse (I always think of Bertie Wooster when I’m teaching The Wind in the Willows and talking about the charming, adventurous, and utterly irresponsible Toad).

10. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh yes.



Hmmm, who should I tag? Okay - I tag Mouse, Mayberry, and Aliki. And you can pick! One meme or both - whatever you want!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Blog Ambition

Both before and after my babies were born, I was an inveterate BabyCenter bulletin board reader. Invariably, I would find my questions answered and my experiences reflected by birth-club postings. My baby just rolled off the bed? Before turning myself in to CAS, I would log on to the July 2005 board and find ten other mothers clutching their wailing but unharmed babies to their chests. Green poop? My July mommies had the answer (which is to nurse on one side only until that breast is completely empty, in case you "green poop" Googlers are wondering).

My birth clubs functioned primarily as sources of useful information – they were practical and occasionally entertaining (I confess that I always clicked on posts with 104 responses, especially if the red "Locked" slogan indicated some really hot debate). The atmosphere was friendly and supportive – occasionally even rah-rah, especially when converts from June 2005 came to join our superior community. That said, controversies, when they did erupt, were much nastier than any real-life interactions I’ve witnessed. Mommy wars to the contrary, no one cared about working vs. staying at home. The real hot-button issues surrounded breast vs. bottle, vaccinations, and – most heatedly of all – the exact age at which whole milk should be introduced. (Let me just say, if you’re planning to offer your 11-month-old baby a cup of milk, DO NOT tell anyone on a BabyCenter birth club.)

The outrage and drama rarely arose from the nature of the topic under discussion – the real issue was always the meta-posting: should 1MoreBaby4Me have called BlessedMama "irresponsible" for giving her baby milk? Was Mom2Madison614 out of line for posting her research showing that BlessedMama was condemning her baby to a lifetime of leaky gut? In essence, the debate was always about free speech, about the social dynamics of online interaction and the rules of netiquette that governed the shared space of the birth club bulletin board.

If my birth clubs were occasionally the scene of all-out bloody battles, the mommy-blogosphere, as others have pointed out, is characterized by an almost unnaturally high level of civility. "Civility," actually, may not be the best word to describe our careful avoidance of criticism and confrontation. Occasionally there is disagreement, but it is always couched in the politest of terms.

I have a few theories to explain this. For one thing, the little trash-can icon in the comments section means that trolls have little motivation to stir up trouble – anything truly inflammatory can simply be deleted. Another factor is the simple fact that most of us commenters are bloggers ourselves, and acutely aware of the way any attack echoes in cyberspace, getting meaner and meaner with each reverberation. In real life, I tend to laugh off a critical remark, and though I may return to it later and wonder what that person was getting at, I don’t have the luxury of examining the transcript of our conversation, of seeing those words confronting me in black and white (or hot pink and black) every single time I click on "comments." Attacks are louder in cyberspace, where humiliation is always public and there’s no compensating body language, no smile or shrug of the shoulders to take the sting out of a nasty phrase. So we don’t attack each other. If we disagree with someone, we find a diplomatic way of saying so, and if we think that certain ideas should never have been posted in the first place, we click away silently. A blog is not a shared space in which we all have a stake in what is said: if you want to post about the abusiveness of those who poison their babies with – gasp! – whole milk, that’s ultimately your prerogative.

One BabyCenter debate that always struck me as laughably silly was the plaintive wails that occasionally emerged from those who considered themselves less "popular" than other participants. "Why didn’t anybody comment on my baby’s three-month pics?" they would whine. "How come everybody jumps in to rave about JennyMom’s photos, just because she posts prompt, informative, and low-pressure responses to every single breastfeeding question posted on the board? I know I don’t post here very often, but when I DO post a pic, I expect 30 replies congratulating me on my child’s exceptional beauty!" And then the debate would ensue – should we shower Little Miss I-Never-Post with attention to make her feel at home, or should we explain that when it comes to an online community, you can only expect to get what you give? I was mostly a lurker on these boards, and my expectations were proportionally low, so I had little sympathy for the whiners who likened the birth club to high school, complaining that they weren’t welcome at the cool kids’ table when in fact the table was wide open to anyone who cared to actually come sit down once in awhile (and if they bring extra cookies so much the better!).

Beanie Baby’s recent posts on blog popularity have got me thinking about how popularity operates in the blogosphere. Is it appropriate to measure "popularity" in absolute terms (as SiteMeter and Technorati and BlogTopSites perpetually encourage us to do)? Are bloggers with comparatively fewer readers "unpopular," or are they simply cyber-introverts? In real life, I have always preferred to have a few close friends rather than an army of distant acquaintances, so why would I approach blogging differently?

Because I do, of course. When it comes to blog readership, I’ve always assumed that the sky is the limit – the more readers the better. But why? Well, at the risk of stating the obvious – because getting comments is fun. In my ideal world, I’d like to be able to publish a post, go away for an hour or two to make supper or take the children to the park, and return to find new comments every single time I check my blog. It’s awfully depressing to spend the morning at play-group and come home to find that big fat "0 Sing Along" staring me in the face. So, yeah, readers are good, and readers who leave a comment are even better. (Thank you, O gracious internets, for all your lovely candy-comments, by the way! Have I mentioned how much I appreciate them?) But beyond that comment-induced sugar-high – do I want readers simply for the sake of watching my SiteMeter number rise and my BlogTopSites number fall?

Well, kind of. I can’t escape the fact that I started this blog mere days after receiving three letters: two from colleges who politely declined to accept my teaching services for the 2006-07 term, and one offering me a low-status and low-maintenance online course to teach. And as I frantically crunched the numbers to compute exactly how much additional debt this will mean for my family over the next few months, I faced the fact that the career path I’ve been on for the last 16 years has basically landed me in a dead end. A few years down the road, when my babies are in school, I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. But in the meantime – I know! – I’ll start a blog.

I think for a lot of us over-educated SAHMs, blogging is an outlet for the energies – and ambitions – that we are no longer channelling into paid work. We want to be creative, we want to make friends, but we also crave recognition and blogging holds out the promise of providing some of the status we lost when we left the workforce, or at least scaled back our participation in it. And then there’s the blogging Holy Grail, the promise of making money from your blog or turning it into a stepping stone into a writing career – the dream of being "discovered" by a talent scout who wanders around the cyber-mall until his eye is caught by my feathered hair-do and designer jeans, the hip-ness of which irresistibly compel him to offer me a modeling, I mean writing contract that will send me straight to super-stardom.

Yeah.

It’s not entirely clear that (a) this mythical cyber-scout actually exists, or (b) that professional blogging would be a career I'd enjoy even if the opportunity arose. Even a few harmless little ads on my blog might arguably offer surprisingly little financial reward in exchange for the cost of fanning the flames of my absurd blog-ambitions and stoking my obsession with blogging-by-numbers.

I suspect that the vast majority of the blogosphere is like my BabyCenter bulletin board – readership of all but the most popular blogs is probably proportional to the effort the blogger makes to read and comment on others. And if a "popular" blogger is one who receives more comments than she writes, who reads 10 blogs for every 25 readers who visit hers, is that really the most desirable way of engaging in this blogging business? Is there a loss of intimacy that results from that kind of popularity, a need to develop a more "public" blogging voice? And if blogging is not a substitute career or a means of achieving super-stardom – if it’s really about forming relationships, of maintaining a degree of balance between the giving and receiving of comments – does it matter if I have 10 blogging buddies or 75?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Moms' Group: The Laughter, The Tears

Melodramatic post titles aside, my Wednesday morning moms’ group has been a comfortable staple of this mothering gig for me since before Bub was born. In its heyday, there were as many as ten moms involved, and we had a rotating schedule of music-and-play days (a cacophany of cymbals, drums, and raucous voices singing "Old MacDonald Had a Farm"), book study days, and "Mom’s Choice," which could involve anything from manicures to amateur MBTI personality assessments (guess whose "choice" that was). Child care was provided two weeks out of three, and us moms would often end up munching cookies and sipping frappés over at the coffee shop next door to the church.

These days, we’re down to three moms and five kids, child-care coverage is spotty at best, and most of the time we just hang out in the nursery, chatting while the children fight over the toys. Today was a pretty typical day, as the stats should show:

  • Tantrums Thrown by the Bub: 4
  • Sippy Cups Stolen by the Pie: 2
  • Times I Sang "Jingle, jingle jingle! You can hear those sleigh-bells ring! I am old Kris Kringle, I’m the king of jing-a-ling!" to accompany Bub’s bell-shaking: 1,374
  • Minutes it Took to Get Bub’s Shoes On: 13
  • Shoes Thrown at the Bub in a Not-Very-Gentle Manner: 1
  • Judgmental Looks from Non-Shoe-Throwing Mothers: 0
  • Useful Insight Gained: 1

(To wit: If you are concerned that you are (a) homicidal, (b) bipolar, and (c) dying of a uterine hemorrhage, what you are really experiencing is the completely normal side effects of the return of your monthly cycle after three years of pregnancy and/or breastfeeding.)

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Evolution of Friendship

Friendship circa 1978
Criteria: age, location, hairdo (living on my street = good; a really good perm = better)
Activities: doing pullovers on the monkey bars, watching The Brady Bunch (location to be determined based on whose mother has gone grocery shopping most recently)
Proof of friendship: trick-or-treating together on Halloween



Friendship circa 1982
Criteria: willingness to join a multitude of secret clubs (the Ginger-Snaps, the Canadian National Swing Academy), ability to learn the secret language of each one, acknowledgement that I am President of them all
Activities: talking about boys, creating soap-opera alter egos for each member of our class, repeated rounds of "We must, we must, we must increase our bust!"
Proof of friendship: telling each other which boy we like, or (for ultimate bonding) deciding to like the same boy (thus creating an entire additional category of activities: Cooperative Stalking)



Friendship circa 1987
Criteria: knowledge of party locations, access to transportation (car ownership = good; Jeep ownership = better; parents willing to drop off and pick up = we’ll take what we can get)
Activities: school dances, football games, endless Cooperative Stalking (now with individual rather than shared targets)
Proof of friendship: willingness to clean up barf and/or act as Designated Driver



Friendship circa 1991
Criteria: age, location, hairdo (good location = dorm room next to mine; good hair = still surprisingly big)
Activities: grocery shopping runs, hockey games, nightly study breaks involving slam-dancing to Barry Manilow’s "Copacabana"
Proof of friendship: unwillingness to date one another’s ex-boyfriends



Friendship circa 1998
Criteria: personality, shared beliefs, singleness
Activities: karaoke, tubing, camping, costume parties, small group Bible studies, beach weekends, coffee-drinking, cheesecake-eating, (occasional) vodka-drinking
Proof of friendship: discreet matchmaking, provision of appropriate break-up counselling (including brownies, ice cream, and videos of Muriel’s Wedding)



Friendship circa 2004
Criteria: overlapping maternity leaves
Activities: play-dates, moms’ groups, mall-walking
Proof of friendship: cooking up post-natal lasagnas, Starbucks home delivery when the demands of a baby’s breastfeeding schedule prohibit an evening out



Friendship circa 2006
Criteria: lots of history, low maintenance
Activities: monthly chick-flicks followed by coffee and dessert
Proof of friendship: no resentment if three months go by without a phone call; no reaction of horror when you mention how you accidentally forgot to buckle the baby into her carseat.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Just 'Cause

Many years ago, I read a book called The Past is Myself, an autobiography by Christabel Bielenberg, an Englishwoman who married a German man in 1932 and lived out the Second World War in Berlin. Perhaps the most memorable moment in the book occurs when a desperate Jewish family seeks shelter; Christabel takes them in for the night, but at her husband’s insistence, sends them on their way the next day. That soul-crushing decision is deemed necessary to protect not only her husband but also several other highly-placed members of the Resistance who could be implicated if she were caught harbouring Jews. All of these men were arrested – some executed – after their failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

That incident has lingered in my memory because it places two kinds of activism at odds with one another: there is Christabel’s desire to help the two people who are right under her nose – her "neighbours," if you will – versus her husband’s ultimately futile involvement in a broader political solution to the same problem. What do you do in that situation? Do you help the individual, or do you focus on the revolution?

In theory, I plump for the latter, often with some acerbity, as when I teach Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel A Little Princess. A Cinderella story, the novel follows the heroine, Sara Crewe, from riches to rags, emphasizing her unchanging saintliness throughout. Sara ought to be the poster girl for Ayn Rand’s theory that there is no such thing as altruism: her acts of charity are palpably motivated by her need to recapture her lost racial and class privilege. She identifies with Marie Antoinette and thinks longingly of her days in India when servants would call her "Missee Sahib," their foreheads almost touching the ground when they salaamed to her. Cold and hungry, she gives five of her six hot buns to a little London guttersnipe, telling herself that she is "scattering largess to the populace." When her fortune is restored, Job-like, at the end of the novel, she sets up a subscription at the local bakery to provide all the hungry little children with hot buns when they need them – a stunningly stop-gap solution to conditions of child poverty that Burnett describes vividly while denying the possibility of long-term social change.

Theoretically, there should be no conflict between the two approaches: involvement in political causes does not in any way preclude individual acts of philanthropy, kindness, and support. Nevertheless, in practical terms most people seem to be drawn by temperament to one or the other. Organizations like World Vision assume that most people prefer to help an individual – in practice, World Vision helps an entire village, providing schools and wells and medical care, but they package that in individual sponsorships, knowing that people want a photo to put on their refrigerator of the "foster child" they’ve adopted in a developing country. I think they’re probably right – probably as many as 80% of us prefer to help individuals, while the other 20% are drawn to the big causes – they are the crusaders, the militants, people who get things done and aren’t always comfortable to have around.

I have a friend like that, one who devotes enormous energy to the causes that are important to her. Last winter she invited me to a baby shower she had organized to benefit a local crisis pregnancy center. I packed up some extra baby supplies I had lying around the house and then hid them shamefacedly at the back of the gift table which was simply groaning under the weight of the attenders’ enormous generosity: little blue Carter’s onesies, sweet beribboned dresses, diapers, wipes, carseats, exersaucers – even a brand-new StorkCraft crib. The speakers included a woman who had benefited from the centre’s post-abortion counseling, a single mother who had received support during and after her pregnancy, and the director, who outlined the really important work the centre was doing, explaining for the benefit of her audience that "in order to get to the babies we have to go through the mothers."

There was so much that was horrifying about that evening, and yet my reaction was complicated. I was incredibly moved by stories from the women who had been helped by the centre’s programs, none of which are available elsewhere in the city. And I was bemused by the assumption that people would be motivated not by their desire to help vulnerable women but rather by their opposition to the evils of abortion. My friend opened the evening with a little quiz: she described several women in an escalating set of terrible circumstances, culminating in a young homeless girl facing an unplanned pregnancy. Would abortion be a reasonable solution? she asked, before unveiling the identity of these unborn babies: John Wesley, Ludwig van Beethoven, and finally – you guessed it – Jesus Christ. Setting aside how manipulative and blatantly illogical this argument is (what if it had been the mother of Adolf Hitler? Would abortion be a reasonable solution then?), I wondered why my friend focused so intently on preventing abortions while I preferred to focus on helping women and their children. A woman once told me, in all seriousness, "Oh, I’m very opposed to evil." I remember it because it seemed so comically self-evident – isn’t everybody opposed to evil? But now that I think about it, I’m not sure that I’m all that opposed to evil: I would always rather create something good than defeat something evil.

I don’t know what "cause" to adopt in response to Her Bad Mother’s call to action. I think I may be uncomfortable with causes, though I’m grateful for all the people who do not share my discomfort, who stir up trouble, who man the barricades, who change the world. Maybe while you guys are doing that I’ll be over here in the corner, handing out a few hot buns.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Boys Are Back in Town

The annual fall BBQ will be getting underway in an hour or two chez Bub & Pie. On this occasion, hubby invites all his friends over for man-grub – bloody steaks, baked potatoes loaded with plenty of cheese and sour cream, a Caesar salad so they can feel healthy about their saturated fat, and then the man-cake for dessert: McCain Deep ‘n’ Delicious chocolate cake. (Do you have Deep ‘n’ Delicious cake down there in the U.S.? This is a cake beloved of all men. The commercial didn’t lie about the dad who crept downstairs in the middle of the night to snack on all that frozen chocolatey goodness.)

(FYI: If you do a Google search on McCain Deep 'n' Delicious cake, you may discover that although it is a much-loved Canadian confection, it falls a good distance behind Nanaimo bars as the most patriotic dessert. I was pleased to note that Coffee Crisp - previously mentioned on this blog - came in second. Please note: We actually have a box of Nanaimo bars in our freezer right now, alongside the Coffee Crisp ice cream. Am I patriotic or what?)

Hubby's sudden urge to entertain guests may be part of the midlife crisis he's been bugging me to blog about. (Despite his occasional surliness towards my blogging proclivities, especially when they interfere with a sensibly early bedtime hour, he has begun to develop an interest in this blog, and his representation on it. Apparently it's important to him that he be represented as experiencing a midlife crisis.) This midlife crisis has manifested itself thus far in the purchase of concert tickets - he has become an FM96 Freeloader and used those privileges to purchase tickets to the upcoming Foo Fighters/Bob Dylan concert. He's even heading to Toronto to see Electric Six, and all I can say about that is that under no circumstances should you click over to YouTube to watch their video of Danger! High Voltage!

Despite such overwhelming evidence that he is in midlife crisis, I tend to think that this impromptu BBQ is evidence of his secret extraversion. When it comes time to call in a pizza order or make restaurant reservations, hubby occasionally tries to shirk this duty by telling me, "You’re the extravert." I am not an extravert, to be sure, but I am occasionally the extravert in the relationship: the designated extravert, the one responsible for outside-world-relations. This mis-allotment of marital duties arises primarily from the fact that I am the more talkative of the two of us: hubby listens well, chooses his words carefully, and has little difficulty allowing silences to hang there, whereas I tend to rush in with a flood of words, especially in unfamiliar social situations. Nevertheless, when it comes to hospitality, hubby is the extravert of the family: he loves inviting people over and BBQing up a feast, and he’s developed a mean arsenal of party-friendly recipes as a result: vegetables grilled in foil packets, twice-baked potatoes, salmon marinated in a garlic-sesame sauce. I invariably end up enjoying such social gatherings, though I cope with the pre-party anxiety by putting myself in a spectator role: it’s hubby’s party, and I’m just along for the ride.

What amazes me about a boys’ night like this one is the inter-mixing of friends from separate social groups. First there’s the "crew," friends from hubby’s retail days at Games Workshop: mostly young and unmarried, with a shared interest in tabletop strategy games and various other manifestations of nerd-dom. Then there are the philosophy-buddies: an old Bible-college friend and his pack of grad-student roommates (also young and unmarried, come to think of it, and also interested in gaming and nerd-dom). In my world, mixing two groups of friends together is a recipe for disaster, not because they wouldn’t get along but because I would have a heart attack trying to manage the hostessing-duty of ensuring that everybody is introduced (which I never, ever remember to do) and selecting which persona to adopt. Which version of myself should I be? The quiet, goofy, bookish one? The joke-cracking, talkative one? Or – wait – how about the hide-in-a-corner having-a-nervous-breakdown one?

A giant bag of Smartfood and an even larger bag of Cheetos just came through the front door (I think hubby was in there somewhere, functioning as a junk-food transportation device). Let the gaming begin…

Edit: Having read this post, hubby would like to point out that his is an ironic, wannabe kind of midlife crisis, exemplified by the night he decided to stay out partying with the crew (involving late-night D&D and a possible dip in the pool at near-zero temperatures), only to discover that he's physically incapable of staying awake past 1 am. At least he has the t-shirt, though:

Thursday, September 07, 2006

I'm Bored

But don’t worry! It’s not because of the children!

(Am I Bored? is still up at the top of the charts on SiteMeter, thanks to the bounteous munificence of Mom-101, so this is by way of a sequel, dealing with the boredom of the rest of my life.)

I can’t seem to focus my mind on anything interesting today. I’ve toyed around with a few post ideas ("Siblings Twenty Months Apart – The Pros and Cons" or maybe "Moms’ Groups – The Laughter, The Tears"), and I even contemplated writing up a pointless and mind-numbing how-to for some of my favourite board and/or card games ("How to Win at Settlers of Catan" or "Chez Geek: Bubandpie’s List of Who NOT to Play With"). Then I came to my senses and realized that a rant about boredom would be considerably more exciting than any of these posts.

If I weren’t so mind-numbingly bored, I could report on the Pie’s long-deferred 12-month check-up, wringing amazing comical effects from the ten minutes the doctor spent unsuccessfully trying to load the syringe with the meningococcus vaccine before giving up and sticking her with the MMR. (Which may or may not have mostly spilled on my leg … aren’t doctors supposed to notice if that happens? Isn’t there something in med school that covers the importance of getting the vaccine into the patient?)

Or perhaps I could tell a cute and heartwarming anecdote about the Bub’s unsuccessful attempt to locate Mama’s belly button (after looking down my shirt and announcing, "Belly button all gone!" he finally found the little flap of skin that passes for a belly button these days, tweaked it between his thumb and forefinger and said "Beep!" as if it were my nose).

Another option? How ’bout the difficulty of incorporating the fall TV line-up into my blogging schedule? Having started my blog in May, I have yet to combine my blog-reading and -writing regimen with my previous commitments to House, Lost, and Bachelor. (Will there be another bachelor, I wonder, or has the public’s appetite for doomed and implausible relationship-forging inexplicably dried up? Will there ever be a bachelorette who has not previously competed on Bachelor? Will anybody want to read my blog if I fill it with questions such as these?)

Alternatively, I could compose an ode to fall, extolling the glories of leaves crunching underfoot and applesauce simmering on the stove. Or maybe I could just write about what’s really bothering me: the fact that it’s September and for the first time since I was three years old I’m not going back to school (okay, the second time, but last year I was on maternity leave, and that was different). I have logged on to the website for my online course a few times, but it’s not quite the same thing as greeting those nervously jaded faces in my first-year English class or tempering the misplaced optimism of the Children’s Literature students who confide that they’re really looking forward to the course as a break from their "real" (read: science) classes.

I’m not actually depressed about this. I’m looking forward to taking the children to moms’ group tomorrow (the laughter! the tears!). But every once in awhile I look over at Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Ian McEwan’s Atonement stacked up over there on the bookshelf alongside Elements of Fiction and the Norton Anthology of English Literature and I kind of miss what I’m missing. And something about that missing is making me feel really, really bored.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

These Boots Were Made For Talkin'

I once spent an entire summer tromping around England wearing 8-inch construction boots, accompanied at all times by 17 other teenagers clad in similar (identical) footwear.

Why would you do something like that, Bub and Pie? you ask. Did you join some kind of strange construction-boot-wearing cult?

Well, yes, actually. I did.

Before TMI referred to the kind of thing I like to share on my blog, it stood for Teen Missions International, an organization that allowed me to hit up my parents’ friends for donations towards my personal mission to convert those heathen Brits from their spiky-hair, chip-eating, Duran-Duran-listening ways. For six weeks during the summer between grades ten and eleven, I took part in open-air puppet shows about Noah’s ark, invented five-minute skits about the evils of gossip, and sang desperately harmonized versions of appropriately English-themed songs like "Love is the flag flown high / From the castle of my heart [clap clap!] / For the King is in residence there!"

The rationale for the mandatory construction boots went as follows:
Premise 1: Construction boots are essential equipment for mission teams building orphanages in Haiti, planting churches in Poland, or digging wells in Papua New Guinea.
Premise 2: Teenagers, when given the choice between sensible construction boots and fashionable footwear, will not choose the boots unless compelled to do so, thus risking injury and/or death by snake-bite.
Premise 3: Rules are effective only when applied equally to all.
Therefore, mission team members must wear 8-inch construction boots at all times, including the Dial-a-Teen teams in Sydney, Australia and the puppeteering teams in Canadian Provincial Parks. (England Drama got a bye, however – they were issued black slippers to match their mime outfits.)

Unfortunately for my readers, this post will be sadly lacking in the requisite trauma that ought to go along with this kind of subject matter. I was not sexually abused by José the team leader (who was a rather creepily authoritarian little man, but basically harmless), nor did I acquire any lifelong neuroses. Everything about Teen Missions was almost gleefully absurd, and yet I remember it all with enormous affection.

What I remember most is the rules. The goal of the TMI Rule Book was apparently to leave as little as possible to personal decision-making. The reading of non-Christian books was forbidden, but the reading of Christian books (selected from a library the size of a large shoebox – the kind of box that might house an 8-inch construction boot, perhaps) was required for a 30-minute period each afternoon. (I managed to circumvent this rule by exhausting the entire library within the first four weeks and thus secured permission to purchase several George MacDonald novels at one of the many intriguing English bookstores at which I was otherwise forbidden to shop.) Telephone calls home were verboten, but weekly letters were required (to be written during the designated 30-minute time slot). Team members were not allowed to sing secular music (though some latitude was allowed for "I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane" at the end of the grueling two-week Boot Camp in Florida). Nor were we permitted to discuss "doctrine" – meaning divisive issues such as speaking in tongues, limited atonement, or pre-millennialism (I always forget what that one means, though I know it has something to do with the exact order in which the Rapture, Tribulation, Second Coming, and Millennium take place – in any event, we weren’t allowed to discuss it).

There was a twisted logic behind all the rules, along with a deep and possibly not entirely misplaced distrust in a teenager’s ability to cope with abstract principles and independent decision-making. But what mattered most about the rules was the sense of solidarity they produced. Having jockeyed for position unsuccessfully both at high-school and in the possibly even more cutthroat environment of the church youth group, I found a wonderfully effortless sense of companionship and unity with my fellow team members. All of us shared a common desire to escape José’s eagle eye and go shopping.

We were, quite possibly, the worst Teen Missions team ever. We didn’t convert anybody. We spent our free time buying Mars bars and souvenirs, ranging from a walking-stick (purchased by the cardigan-clad Matthew as a tribute to C.S. Lewis) to an improbably large collection of lambswool sweaters (purchased by all of the girls for no reason other than the fact that the woolen shop was there, right across from the church we were staying at in Didcot, and we had no other vent for our shopping urges). We screeched horribly on the chorus of "Love is the Flag Flown High," ("…so raise it HIGH in the SKY, let the whole world know…"), and we rarely managed to keep our puppets’ mouths in sync with the tape. We risked being sentenced to "Special Blessings" for the hours we spent primping in the common bathroom, applying our green and blue eyeshadow almost as liberally as our candy-floss pink blush. (Make-up was allowed and even recommended as part of the mandatory "Grubby to Grace" personal grooming course, though lateness for the morning evangelism outreach was not.)

And yet I rather think we managed to do less harm than good (which, surely, is an accomplishment for a band of teen zealots unleashed upon an unsuspecting British populace). A group of introverts, we quickly learned how to identify the people at open-air outreaches who were actually willing to talk to us, letting the Noah’s Ark story drive away the hostile ones and then chatting comfortably with those who remained – a 22-year-old Naval recruit bound for the Middle East, a 17-year-old recovering drug user, a gregarious and open-minded mom from whom I learned for the first time that the cultural politics of foreign missionaries did not always meet with unqualified admiration (until then, it had seemed self-evident to me that anyone who loved God enough to wear such really terrible clothes must be a candidate for sainthood). The teens of Didcot Baptist Church hung out with us for two weeks and came away saying "Look how they love each other!"

When I got home that September, I set my alarm for six o’clock each morning so I would have time to read my Bible for half an hour before breakfast. I worked my way through the Psalms and Isaiah before my zeal lost momentum in the face of the total darkness of those chilly November mornings. One day, I even wore my 8-inch work boots to school, igniting the not entirely unwelcome speculation that I had become a head-banger (I hadn’t, but I did enjoy the attention). High school still sucked, but it was a just a little bit easier because I knew what it was like to be accepted and totally comfortable among my peers. I knew, at least, that it was possible.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Labour Day

As I went to bed last night, I could hear my neighbours’ voices floating up from their back yard, and it gave me a comfortable feeling, reminding me of nights at the cottage when I would hunker down in my sleeping bag and listen to my parents and grandparents playing euchre in the dining room. It was the right kind of cottage – all polished wood and bookshelves stocked with old Westerns and Harlequin romances, a battery-operated radio on top of the fridge emitting crackly John Denver tunes, and a pinecone-strewn path out back leading down to a cold Muskoka lake. Summer nights at the cottage were what childhood was all about – a constant low-grade boredom and a wonderful feeling of safety.

I haven’t yet overcome the amazement that now I am the grown-up, the one in charge of keeping people safe, of knowing the way to the grocery store and cooking the meals (to be fair, I rarely do that last one, so my amazement may not be completely ill-founded). But for a short time last night, as I drifted off to sleep, I let go of that adult self and pretended to be a kid again. It was a cold night, with a nip of frost in the air and a woodsy smell from a Labour Day weekend campfire drifting in the window.

For a few years in my late twenties, I would spend my long weekends at a beach cottage on Lake Huron with a large group of friends. Each evening we would set up our chairs around the campfire and toast marshmallows. What I recommend for toasting marshmallows is a good sturdy stick. I do not recommend using a coat hanger. What you will find is that a coat hanger has a good bit of spring to it, and if you hastily pull a flaming marshmallow up from the fire and whip it toward your face in order to blow it out, you’ll end up with a good bit of flaming marshmallow stuck to your chin. (That is what you will find, at least, if you lack basic coordination, in which case I recommend that you have a brand-new boyfriend present to nurse your wounds and laugh at your consternation. And I recommend that you take note of all the amused glances being exchanged by your friends as they enjoy what a sweet couple you and new-boyfriend have become.) That life seems far away now, too – a life of almost unimaginable leisure, with whole days spent doing nothing but lying on a big blanket in the sun and trading girl-talk with friends while the boys play beach volleyball.

Today, I’m headed up to the beach to see my in-laws at another cottage that looks like a cottage ought to – orange shag carpets on linoleum floors, owl macrame hangings on the walls, and a big bank of windows overlooking the lake. I will pack the following items: booster seat (1), portable high-chair (1), changes of outfit (2), sippy cups of milk and juice (4), fold-up playpen (1), bag of miscellaneous toys (1), diapers (6), hats and sunscreen (if I remember), and a lunch bag packed with yogourt, cheese slices, baby-food jars, Goldfish crackers, and arrowroot cookies. My children, who are impervious to the cold, will get (a) sand in their jeans and sweaters and socks, (b) lots of attention from Grandma and Grandpa, and (c) very, very tired after too much sun and not enough naps. It will be a good day.