Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Break-Up

I remember my mother’s gasp of dismay when she heard the news, the cry that brought me running in from the next room to find out what was wrong: "Brooke and Andre broke up!" she hissed, then returned to her phone call to get all the details. We were sad about that, my mother and I, though in retrospect it was probably for the best: they seem happier now, with Chris and Steffi and their beautiful children. Celebrity break-ups are never exactly surprising, and yet there are certain couples whose demise seems unfortunate, preventable; I’m still not convinced, for instance, that Prince Andrew and Fergie should ever have divorced, and when Tom left Nicole, I deliberately chose not to see Vanilla Sky as punishment (a lesson I hope he took to heart, though I have grave, grave doubts).

Thus, when I learned last night that Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe had gone their separate ways I was saddened, as I always am when young children are involved, and it reminded me of a conversation hubby and I once had in those early days of dating, when every conversation gets branded on one’s brain, to be replayed endlessly for post-analysis in the weeks to come. We were sitting at Williams Coffee Pub, sipping mochaccinos and categorizing all the break-ups we could think of. (It was the kind of conversation that convinced me he was Mr. Right – not only did he share my penchant for analyzing relationships, but he did so with a flair for categorization that has never failed to amuse and entertain me.) When a break-up occurs, the attendant explanations are usually designed to conceal more than they reveal: "We grew apart." "It was a mutual decision." "It’s not you, it’s me." These statements are, by and large, never true. The real reasons for a break-up generally fall into one of the following categories:

  • The False Start Break-Up: This one occurs when someone finally gets the nerve to write the death certificate for a relationship that never really got off the ground in the first place. A few awkward dates, a pretense of romance where there’s barely even a friendship, a long-distance phone call or two, and then it’s time to play the Last Post and call it a day.

  • Religious Conversion Break-Up: More common than you’d think, this one occurs when a guy gets saved, or a girl renews her commitment to her faith, and then they divest themselves of the unsaved heathen who’ve been masquerading as their significant others. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to turn someone against Christianity, in my observation, it’s being dumped for not being Christian enough.

  • The Third-Party Break-Up: I once read that marriages only ever end for one reason: a new relationship. Yes, there are always flaws in the marriage that can be used to justify divorce, but pure inertia will usually keep people in a bad marriage unless there’s somebody waiting in the get-away car. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that all break-ups involve a third-party, but certainly the most immediately pressing reason to break up with someone is that other someone lurking on the horizon. It’s debatable, I suppose, how far things have to progress before the third-party factor kicks in: as far as Brad and Angie are concerned, apparently, it’s not home-wrecking if no bodily fluids are exchanged. Before he and Jen split up, they claim, Angelina was nothing more than a good friend to Brad. Maybe so – but I suspect there are few things more destructive to a marriage than a beautiful woman with a sympathetic listening ear (especially if this woman makes it clear that she’s willing to bear the man’s biological child). Setting aside the definition of adultery, however, the third-party categorization applies even if the prospective third party is no more than a twinkle in the breaker-upper’s eye: it’s motive that matters here, not history.

  • The At-Fault Break-Up: In this category, the precipitating event is usually a discovery: your husband has been sleeping with your best friend; your boyfriend has been "borrowing" your ATM card and using it to steal from your bank account, $20 here, $40 there (not that anyone does that, or did it to my sister). Whether or not the couple was happy before, a line has been crossed, the unforgivable has occurred, and the relationship ends – usually with no half-hearted reunions or secret assignations.

  • The Trial Separation: This is the category with which I have the least experience, and I’m not entirely sure how it works – why a trial separation begins, how it ends, or what it indicates about a relationship. I’m an all-or-nothing girl – one reason I like marriage better than dating is that I don’t have to work so hard to hold back, to retain some objectivity (a doomed effort for me, at best). One reason for a trial separation might be a discovery that falls just short of the at-fault break-up threshold: something serious enough to warrant a good step back, but not entirely a deal-breaker. Conversely, a trial separation also seems likely to occur when a couple has been dating for years, possibly since high school, and they need to be apart for awhile to figure out whether the relationship is more than just a comfortable habit. My gut instinct would say that if you feel the need for a trial separation even before marriage and children have sucked the passion and romance out of your life, the relationship may not be worth saving. But there’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that my gut instinct, in this case, is full of crap.

  • The Can’t-Handle-It Break-Up: Everything is going great, and then suddenly life dishes up something really awful: cancer, rape, injury. You would think that under those circumstances even a troubled couple would pull together and weather the crisis, because who wants to be the guy who dumped his girlfriend because she had cancer? A surprising number of losers, apparently, is the answer to that question.

    …and finally,

  • The Marriage Avoidance Break-Up: In the most common version of this break-up, she wants to get married and he doesn’t. (I’m sure there are cases where the man wants to get married and the woman shies away; I just don’t know of any such scenario among my personal acquaintance.) "I’m not ready to get married," he typically explains: "There’s nothing wrong with you; it’s just that I’m happy with things the way they are." The Marriage Avoidance break-up usually pans out one of two ways: (1) The marriage-seeker dumps the guy, then she takes him back, and then he finally coughs up the ring and they live happily ever after; or (2) The marriage-avoider dumps the girl, toys with her emotions for awhile with various secret and not-so-secret reunions, then finds somebody else and marries her within six months.

Okay, you guys, it’s your turn. What break-ups have I missed?

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's a Dirty Job...

In a recent interview (thanks to Metro Mama for the link!), Alice Munro acknowledges that she has no idea what she’ll do in her retirement: "Being a writer has been such a lifelong preoccupation," she says, "I don't know what I'm going to do next. I have no other talents." Similar sentiments have been expressed by Bono, who’s sharply aware of his total unfitness for any job other than rock star. I always feel a sense of kinship when people make these remarks, with the main distinction being that I’m not rich and famous. I am, however, at least as limited as Bono and Munro in my marketable skills and on-the-job experience. Only once have I gotten a job by applying and interviewing for it, and my employment history outside of an academic setting consists of household chores (at an allowance of 50 cents/week, to be spent on KitKat or Coffee Crisp chocolate bars each Sunday afternoon), babysitting (at $2/hour, to be spent on Sweet Valley High romance novels, Culture Club tapes, and big dangly earrings), and the following four jobs:

1) Bussing tables at Wonderland Gardens: A banquet hall dating back to the big-band era, Wonderland Gardens was a bit of a London institution until it tragically burned down last year. I got a job there when I was fifteen because I was friends with the owner’s niece, and my responsibilities included setting tables, preparing spinach salad, slapping ice-cream-scoopfuls of mashed potatoes onto plates in the buffet line, clearing tables and pouring coffee. Best perk of the job: free roast beef and all-you-can-eat frozen chocolate eclairs. Lifelong impact of the job: increased awareness of my unsuitability for work requiring a sense of balance, and an aversion to spinach.

2) Cashier at Applegate Fruit Market: Although I heard about the opening through the local grapevine, I think I can say that this is the one job I ever achieved primarily by my own efforts: I called, came in for an interview, and landed the job in short order. Despite the mind-numbing nature of cash-register work, I always liked the atmosphere of the wooden frame building with its distinctive smell of fresh apples. While other sixteen-year-olds worked in the uniform blandness of a mall food court, I sipped hot apple cider on frosty Saturday mornings and learned that while bananas were always 59 cents/lb, it was a good idea to double check the fluctuating prices of grapes and oranges. An hour before closing, when the steady stream of customers slowed down, I could escape from behind the cash register and get the store ready for closing: throw a heavy blanket over the potatoes to prevent them from turning green, move the berries and plums into the cooler for the night, hang an insulating curtain over the coolers full of starfruit, mangos, and papayas, and then sweep and mop, humming as I worked to the tune of Tiffany’s "I Think We’re Alone Now" (And so we’re running just as fast as we can / Holding onto one another’s hand / Time to get away, into the night / And then you put your arms around me and we tumble to the ground and then you say, ‘I think we’re alone now…’). I never quite stopped believing that at some point a handsome football player would come into the store to buy some apples and a carton of milk, and then he would look into my eyes and realize that we shared the same soul…. It never happened, but at least I did receive an awkward proposition from a co-worker, a boy at least a full foot shorter than me, who when I caught him sneaking some Smarties from the bulk bin, offered to kiss me in return for my silence. (I declined.)

3) Ticket Manager for the London Tigers baseball team: The summer before the last year of my undergraduate program, I spent hunkered down in a concrete bunker under the stands of the local ball park, selling tickets. On game nights, the ticket office was bustling with employees responsible for selling tickets at the gate, but during the day I was in sole charge of every ticket that changed hands. When the team was in town, I came in at noon and stayed until after the game was over (usually around 9:30 that night), and when they were away, I worked nine to five. Unless the San Diego Chicken was coming to town, the office was never busy, so I spent my hours writing essays on the Civil War and the value of grassroots feminism for my two correspondence courses, and flipping through bridal magazines selecting bouquets and bridesmaid dresses for my upcoming wedding: the days were long, but the demands of the job were minimal. Like my job at Applegate, this one was repetitive and unchallenging but full of atmosphere: tall, handsome players on their way up to the big leagues, pretzels and hot dogs, cheering fans and fireworks. Best perk: front-row seats for the Canada Day firework display. Worst hardship: a boss who believed that, at seventy hours a week, he wasn’t quite getting his money’s worth out of me.

4) Coursepack supervisor: For several years, I supplemented my teaching income with a few hours a week gaining copyright permissions for professors who wanted to assign photocopied articles in place of a textbook. In July and August, I could work nearly full-time hours, keeping track of over a hundred coursepacks as they moved from intake to scanning to proofing. By early September, the job would trickle down to a few hours per week and I could come and go as I pleased, checking in from time to time to see if any outstanding permissions had turned up. Best perk of the job: speed-reading articles for Philosophy and Sociology courses – fun, fascinating essays on the history of witchcraft, the ethics of Huckleberry Finn, or the impact of gender on parenting styles. Worst part of the job: dealing with Law profs who would miss their deadlines, fail to provide needed copyright information (even though the coursepack was for a course on copyright law), and then try to bully our staff into making promises that the evil Law prof could later use against us.

This afternoon, I start my "new" job (the same old teaching job, of course, but a new class with new students), and as a corollary of that, I get a bit of a break from my current job, the one that carries a moderate risk of back injury (due to the strenuous lifting and carrying of weights over twenty pounds), hearing loss (due to intermittent high-pitched noises exceeding recommended decibel levels), and contamination or infection (due to exposure to various biohazards including vomit and fecal matter). Worst part of the job: low pay and unpredictable hours including shift work. Best perks:

this


and this

Friday, October 27, 2006

Poems

Sixteen autumns ago, when I first went off to university, I was startled by how isolated we eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds were from the rest of the demographic universe. Months before, I had been a babysitter, bribing ten-year-olds into bed with Kraft caramels, coaxing babies into quietude with increasingly desperate renditions of "You are My Sunshine." I had been a Junior Astronauts leader at my small village church where all the little old ladies greeted me by name on Sunday mornings while I struggled to distinguish Doris from Ruth. Each December I had canvassed the neighbourhood for the SCROOGE campaign, collecting "oodles and oodles of goodies etc." for the local food bank.

And then I graduated from high school and entered the decade of estrangement from those babies and families and identically-permed-white-haired ladies. For years to come, my world was populated by fellow students, fellow twenty-something singletons and too-hastily-weds, and I became no more than an occasional visitor to the community that had once defined me.

I was reminded yesterday of that divide between home and school as I browsed through two thousand pages of the Norton Introduction to Literature, looking for poems to include in the syllabus for the course I’m jumping into next week. I’ve been madly cobbling together sonnets and dramatic monologues, short lyric poems suitable for introducing students to the workings of metaphor and symbolism. And I’ve been finding little gems – a poem dedicated entirely to the lush pleasures of the word "plum," for instance, and a bitter little sonnet that concludes with the words "they have eaten me alive" (referring to the speaker’s two young children and nursing baby). Self-indulgently, I’ve thrown the latter into my unit on the sonnet, serving it up as a little break between Shakespeare and Donne. My students will not care about the rigours of breastfeeding, but they will, perhaps, relate to this poem, Seamus Heaney’s "Mid-term Break."

Blog Antagonist asked us, awhile back, to post a poem that speaks to us. I’ll link to it rather than copying it here (displaying an unusual degree of respect for copyright, I think you’ll agree). But go and read it, and see if it helps you recall that uncomfortable stretching sensation of leaving behind the dorm room with its Casablanca poster above the bed, its wine-bottle candles and dry-erase calendar, and re-entering the world of babies and grandparents, of embarrassing inter-generational demands. Read the poem, and understand why it reminds me of what it felt like to be twenty, and yet reminds me also of how irrevocably connected I have become since then, tied by a thousand spider-web threads to my hometown, my family, my children. (Yes, they’ve eaten me alive – but not without offering something painful and real and true in exchange for that small little thing, my old self.)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Why I Love Fall

For Love Thursday...

It has been a cold, dark October – the coldest and darkest I can remember. Poor little Pie longs desperately to play in the leaves. Every time we get out of the car she reaches her arms out beseechingly, and sometimes I let her grab a few handfuls before whisking her into the house to wash off her muddy paws. And yet how does she know this, I wonder? Last year she was just a wee babe in arms, yet instinctively she knows that those leaves are for jumping in, for throwing in the air and crackling under booted feet. Each morning I tell myself that as soon as it’s dry for a day or two, and the sun shines, we’ll go out to the back yard and rake up great piles of red and yellow leaves. We’ll heap them up at the foot of the slide so she can barrel down into them at top speed, laughing in fear and exhilaration. And then I check the weather forecast and it calls for another week of rain and wind (on the days, that is, when it doesn’t call for snow).

But even so, I’m amazed, as always, at the sheer unexpectedness of the season, as if nature has gone a little batty in her old age and joined the Red Hat Society, spending her dotage tossing back martinis on the golf course with her cronies and secretly ordering male strippers to crash her mid-afternoon tea parties.


Fall is a little bit like something made up in a book. Truly, if I couldn’t see those leaves for myself, I would never believe it.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

A Few Good Things

On a day when you’re stumbling around after a single five-hour stint of sleep, and your daughter has a probable case of hand-foot-mouth disease (the good news about that being that it’s not the same as foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle rather than humans, the bad news being the likelihood of painful open sores in her mouth), and you've just lined up a new course to teach starting on Monday (which is good news, on the whole, but a change nonetheless, and change is bad), and you’ve got thirty essays to mark and no day-care until the children are out of quarantine – on a day like that, it’s good to have a friend who sends you a nice package in the mail, full of fadiddle-esque wonderfulness:




And it’s nice, too, to have the following conversation with your drooly, slightly feverish, but still-able-to-bust-a-move baby girl:
Pie: Where’s belly?
Me: (lift shirt)
Pie: Itsa button!
(repeat as needed)

(Please note that the really thrilling part of this conversation is not so much my 14-month-old’s ability to speak in complete sentences, but rather her ability to recognize and label the bits of collapsed flesh under her mom’s shirt as a "belly button" – as something related, however distantly, to the tidy little knot that emerges everytime she pulls up her own shirt, proudly declaring "Belly!")

And, finally, when you have a little boy who bolts out of his bed at least once every single night, it’s not only nice but really worth pointing out that he spends his days in a mood of truly Jekyll-ish cooperation. Most of each day, to be sure, he spends re-enacting scenes from his new Fred Penner concert video, but even that involves the exchanging of pleasantries such as "You! No you! No you! No you!" and "Ma-me-mi-mo-mu – Go! Ta-tee-ti-to-tu – Go!" And at the end of the day, when he’s told that it’s time to go to sleep, he sobs "no no no no yes" and then heads upstairs obediently and climbs into bed, where he’ll remain peacefully asleep until Mr. Hyde makes his appearance sometime between 1:30 and 5:45 tomorrow morning.


They really are nice children, she reminded herself.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Bandwagons

I’ve never considered myself too good to jump on a bandwagon. I became a Toronto Blue Jays fan the fall of ’85, and I haven’t watched baseball since their last World Series run in ’93. The first U2 album I bought was The Joshua Tree (though I remained on the bandwagon in that case, even through Zooropa and Pop). I did get in on the ground floor of Survivor, but that was purest chance – after reading the premise of this new "reality show", and reacting with suitable feelings of smug superiority to the unwashed masses who would consume such fare, I happened to randomly flick to the right channel one night, and I’ve been hooked ever since.

One disadvantage of being a chronic latecomer to all the big TV crazes is that I tend to know too much about the various plot surprises once I finally get a chance to catch up on all the episodes I’ve missed. I watched the entire first season of Lost on DVD, knowing in advance that the season would end with the opening of the fabled hatch. And I was at an even greater disadvantage when I finally got my boxed sets of Buffy, having been drawn into the show by the illicit Buffy-Spike relationship in season six. As far as I was concerned, Buffy had always had a sister named Dawn, and as I watched the first few seasons, I always wondered when and how her mother would kick the bucket.

Nothing irritates my husband like a spoiler; it’s essential to him to see all the episodes of any show in the correct order, and to avoid media exposure whenever necessary in order to dodge unwelcome information. I’m more ambivalent; the pleasures of suspense are weighed precariously for me against the discomforts of anxiety. As a child, I always read the last page of a book first, just to reassure myself that everything would turn out okay, and to this day I enjoy the Harry Potter books more on the second read-through, when I can slow down enough to delight in the colourful eccentricities of Hogwarts and its denizens. For that reason, I’m often in favour of jumping into a good show mid-season, while hubby stubbornly refuses to watch anything until he can get all the back episodes downloaded to DVD.

Our current catch-up attempts involve Battlestar Galactica (we’re midway through season 1 and hope to be caught up in time for next fall) and Heroes (we watched episode 4 last night, and now we’re all set for the new episode tomorrow). There is always a certain disappointment, though, when we have to scale back our investment in a show from our heady pace of 3-4 episodes per week down to a paltry single episode (barring baseball, State of the Union, and other annoying shuffles to the TV schedule). Watching TV shows on DVD has some of the intensity of reading a good novel: you can immerse yourself in another world, returning there at each leisure moment, accelerating the pace as the suspense heats up. Few shows can sustain that kind of intensity when they occupy a mere one-hour time slot every Wednesday night.

Something of the same principle applies to blog-reading. I’ve written before about how much I love reading archives. Partly that’s because there’s a certain freshness to the earliest entries in a blog; that’s where you can find all the really good stories, told with an innocent meditativeness, an absence of glitz, of clever slang, of audience awareness. Archive reading appeals to me also, though, because it allows me to immerse myself in the unfolding drama of a blogger’s life. I read quickly, gulping down two or three months in a single sitting. I get a flavour of how that blogger writes, attune my mind to her sense of humour, develop a breathless interest in her child’s health and behaviour issues. As I said in my last post, I love you all for different reasons, those of you who keep blogs, and comment here so I can visit them, but it would be fair to say that I never love you more than when I’m first combing through your archives. When that courtship period is over, I continue to enjoy the regular updates, but there is a certain loss of intensity.

Archive reading is a pleasure that cannot, presumably, be extended indefinitely. I’ve tried to be strict with myself lately about not adding to my already extensive list of must-reads. While that is a sensible policy, it overlooks the fact that finding new blogs contributes something essential to the fun and excitement of blogging. If I declare my Bloglines to be full, I’m cutting myself off from the irreplaceable pleasure of discovering someone new.

Izzy, in her recent post on blog ennui, asks why so many bloggers are feeling disenchanted. Is it inevitable that after a year or so, the excitement of the new blog (like the excitement of a new romance) will be on the wane? I suspect that certain losses are unavoidable. It’s exciting to watch your numbers rise, to go from feeling giddy at your first-ever comment to feeling a bit embarrassed if a post gets "only" 11 responses (when, at one time, the sight of that number would have prompted the double digits dance). It’s heady stuff, this ever-expanding world of blog camaraderie. But there’s a limit to it, and a few of us are banging our heads against those limits already.

I wonder, too, if at some point I’ll simply run out of things to say. I mine my past for a lot of my posts, but my pool of good stories is starting to shrink. How much is there to say about motherhood before even my capacity for over-analysis starts to wear out?

I can understand how blog ennui arises, but that’s not to say that I’m feeling it right now – blogging is still fun for me, still addictive and rewarding. I’m late enough to the party – having jumped on the bandwagon, as always, once it was well underway – that I’m still in that puppy-love stage. When we hold hands, I get butterflies, and when I see you in the hallway I pull off my glasses and hide them in my pocket. But I’d like to think that I’m in this for the long haul: that after all the new-relationship jitters are past, there will be subtler reasons to stick with my blog, and with those who read it. I’d like to think that my blog and I will be kicking back in our bathrobes and slippers five years from now, in the comfortable intimacy of a long-established relationship, and we’ll sip some strong coffee and tell jokes, those old chestnuts that just get funnier with each retelling. And I’ll forget to suck in my tummy, and I won’t care that my wrinkles show in the morning sunlight: I’ll dangle my participles and split my infinitives and end my sentences with prepositions if I want to, because blogging won’t be about showing off or proving myself as a writer anymore.

It’ll be a good place to be. I’ll meet you there in five years, okay?

Friday, October 20, 2006

Violence, Lust, and Dead People

In which Bubandpie, having been tagged by Ali, is interviewed by an unknown interlocutor who swears a lot.

1. You can flip a switch that will wipe any band or musical artist out of existence. Which one will it be?

Train. But only if I can do it retroactively, such that the song "Meet Virginia" is never written, thus saving my eardrums from perforation.

2. You have the opportunity to sleep with the movie celebrity of your choice. We are talking no-strings-attached sex and it can only happen once. Who is the lucky celebrity of your choice?


But only if he keeps the sideburns. And only if his come-on line is "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."

3. You have the opportunity to sleep with the music-celebrity of your choice. Who do you pick?


But only if he takes off the sunglasses. Actually, scratch that. No conditions apply.

4. Now that you’ve slept with two different people in a row, you seem to be having an excellent day because you just came across a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Holy shit, a hundred bucks! How are you gonna spend it?

The Break-Up DVD (because it depicts the archetypal SP/SJ relationship, and thus makes a matched set with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which depicts the archetypal NF/NT relationship).
A cute but not-wholly-necessary fall coat for the Pie: pink faux-suede with faux-shearling collar.
Baby Proof by Emily Giffin. Not really worth the cost, maybe, but it’s found money, right? Easy come, easy go.
An extra month or two of high-speed Internet access.

5. You just got a free plane ticket to anywhere. You have to depart right now. Where are you gonna go?

Paris. It seems so wrong that I’ve never been there. Every so often, I dream that I’m in Paris, and then I spend the whole dream doing something useless like going to the YMCA and having a shower.

6. Upon arrival to the aforementioned location, you get off the plane and discover another hundred-dollar bill. Shit! Now that you are in the new location, what are you gonna do?

Look for a place to buy some Euros?

7. The Angel of Death has descended upon you. Fortunately, the Angel of Death is pretty cool and in a good mood, and it offers you a half-hour to do whatever you want before you bite it. Whatcha gonna do in that half-hour?

Watch last night’s Survivor episode on tape (fast-forwarding through the challenges and commercials). ’Cause really, it beats clutching my loved ones to my chest and sobbing for 30 minutes.

8. You accidentally eat some radioactive vegetables. They were good, and what’s even cooler is that they endow you with the super-power of your choice! What’s it gonna be?

The mutant power of sleep. Oh, the power to slip into blissful slumber, to snooze undisturbed by snoring/coughing/crying, pitter-patter of little feet, whoop-whoop-whoop of the crazy car alarm from two doors down. Yeah, that’s my pick. My comic-book name can be Somnolescence. I will likely play a pivotal role in saving the world by becoming the only clear-thinking human left on the planet when the Martians invade disguised as human babies.

9. You can re-live any point of time in your life. The time-span can only be a half-hour, though. What half-hour of your past would you like to experience again?

October 3, 1987, Exhibition Stadium – the last thirty minutes of the Joshua Tree concert.

10. Rufus appears out of nowhere with a time-traveling phone booth. You can go anytime in the PAST. What time are you traveling to and what are you going to do when you get there?

30 AD Palestine has a certain appeal, but that might be scary and confusing, due to my inability to speak Aramaic. So I’ll opt for Dublin in the mid-1980s, so I can insinuate myself as a U2 groupie and tour with them around the world. (I know, I know, enough already with the U2 references, but that’s what twenty minutes of combing through the results of a Google Images search on Bono will do to a girl.)

11. You can erase any horrible experience from your past. What will it be?

After reading Cinnamon Gurl’s post today (aptly titled Hair Apparent), I’ll opt to wipe out all memory of my grade six end-of-school pool party, where my brand-new bathing suit (sans reinforced panty) made for a disastrous combination with my recent induction into puberty.

12. You got kicked out of the country for being a time-traveling heathen who sleeps with celebrities and has super-powers. But check out this cool shit… you can move to anywhere else in the world! Bitchin’! What country are you going to live in now?

How ’bout Sweden? It’s pretty there, and they have extended mat leaves and Ikea.

13. The constant absorption of magical moonbeams mixed with the radioactive vegetables you consumed earlier has given you the ability to resurrect the dead famous-person of your choice. So which celebrity will you bring back to life?

Sergei Grinkov. But only if I can do it retroactively, so as not to create an awkward love triangle for Katia and Ilia Kulik.

14. What’s your theme song?

Chumbawumba, "Tubthumping." (I said before that I’m optimist, right?)

My turn to tag (quick! everybody look down at their desks!) – I tag Nomo and Cinnamon Gurl. Gotcha!

*****

Mrs. Chicky has challenged us to spread the love by picking a single blogger that we luurve. Maybe somebody who’s having a bad week, or somebody that some of you might not know about yet. I’ll admit that I’ve had reservations about the project. If I pick just one person to love, does that make everybody else feel unloved? I wouldn’t want that to happen – because there are many kinds of bloggy love, and I love everybody that I read for different reasons. But one blogger did come to mind when I read Mrs. Chicky’s call. She has, indeed, had a bad week, and she may, indeed, be new to some of you. She writes zippy little posts and always manages to hide one little zinger in them – a sentence or a phrase that zaps your brain and makes it do the Jell-o dance. Her blog is called Frog and Toad are Friends, her profile pic is Ramona Quimby, and if that isn’t enough to convince you of how cool she is, her posts include terms like "craptacular," "Borg Queen," and "Muppet pelt" along with sentences like "I cannot love a penguin." Go pay her a visit! And start with this post, just for fun.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

We Belong

Rarely have I been given the cold shoulder with such devastating effectiveness as on the day I brought the Pie home from the hospital. Before that two-night hospital stay, I had never left Bub for the night, and although I knew he had been having a riot with his grandparents (who let him have Frosted Flakes for breakfast instead of the wholesome Milupa infant cereal I was still spooning into his mouth each morning), I expected an effusive greeting. As we stepped through the door, Bub hurled himself into his father’s arms – and carefully avoided eye contact with me, shrugging away my attempted embrace. That greeting was affectionate, however, compared to his reaction to his new baby sister. He gave her the once-over, with an expression on his face that said, "My God, what is that thing?" and then resolutely ignored her for the next three months.

Bub’s coping strategy for dealing with his sister’s arrival was clearly to hope that if he didn’t acknowledge her presence, she would just go away. All that changed, however, on the day we first put the Pie into her Jolly Jumper. She was a robust three-month-old with excellent head control, and she mastered the jumping function immediately, holding out her arms for balance and executing the perfectly synchronized downward foot-thrust required to achieve maximum height. "Her form is perfect," I enthused to my mother, feeling as though we ought to be holding up cards that said 10.0.

Bub, meanwhile, was looking at his sister in shock. He rushed forward, bent down so they were nose to nose, and let out a shriek of amazement and glee. To think that this mewling, crying, interloping mammal was actually a person! I doubt that anything in his life will equal it for sheer unexpectedness.

I have alluded from time to time (in yesterday’s post, for example) to the pivotal role the Pie has played in drawing her brother into the world of social interaction. Hers was the first name he learned, long before he ever said "mama" or "daddy." From her he has discovered the joys and pains of interaction, learned how to defend his property rights and how to use humour to turn a confrontation into a game. She has been Romeo to his Juliet, pursuing him to his balcony, overcoming his resistance with her passionate ardour. He, in turn, is her first love, the one her eyes follow with the most urgency, the one she woos and emulates.

A week ago, well before my recent "scare," I took this photo:



I walk by my front hall dozens of times per day, passing it each time I climb the stairs and each time I come back down. But for one brief moment, last week, I stopped and looked and was struck anew by the miracle of my full family. I never took for granted that I would be able to have children, and when I was pregnant with the Pie I could barely believe my luck in having created this family. When I took that pregnancy test Monday evening, the gratitude I felt when I saw the negative result was not the relief of having escaped near disaster – it was, instead, a renewed appreciation for how balanced my family feels right now. We fit. We belong.

It’s hard, of course, to remain aware of how lucky I am when I’m going crazy with sleep-deprivation, fighting off the hands clinging to my legs, the self-pitying thoughts scratching at my brain. Every once in awhile, though, there is something – two little jackets hanging from pegs, one little line on a home pregnancy test – that reminds me of how very full my life is.

A full wagon.



A full piano bench.


A full family.

*****

Edited to add: At the suggestion of Karen and Mayberry, I've added this to the "Love Thursday" list. For more Love Thursday posts, see Love Is All Around and Chookooloonks.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Two Days Late and a Dollar Short


Two Conversations:

Me:
So I’ve already figured out that the due date would be sometime in late June. Which means that I wouldn’t be able to collect mat leave benefits because I’m not working enough this year.
My mom: I can’t believe you’re worrying about that. You haven’t even mentioned that fact that you’d have, you know, another baby to look after.
Me: I just can’t go there.

Hubby: (having calculated that the, um, prophylactic mishap occurred an estimated three days prior to ovulation) Does that mean we’re having a girl?
Me: Yep. [based, that is, on the theory that the Y sperm swim fast and die young while the X sperm are in it for the long haul] It would be nice for the Pie to have a sister. But I hope it’s a boy because then I could rename my blog "Bub and Pie…and the Little Guy."
Hubby: (stunned silence) Well, yes, that is the most important thing to consider.

*****

I’ve been a loyal customer for the last few years, always purchasing the same brand of home pregnancy test: the Loblaws store brand, which gives you two tests per box for the same price as a single Clear Blue Easy. The last time I peed on one of those sticks it was two days before Bub’s birthday, and I was consciously fostering my ambivalence: I hadn’t expected to conceive so soon, so it wouldn’t be devastating, I told myself, if the test came out negative. I watched as the fluid washed through the test screen…nothing. The line in the second window showed up, a solid dark pink, but the first window remained blank. That can’t be right, I thought. I know my body pretty well by now – I know when I’m pregnant. A couple of seconds later, the faintest of shadows became visible – not quite a line, but the place where the line would be, if a line were to show up, just slightly off-centre to the left. Another few seconds, and the line was clear and decisive, and my carefully cultivated ambivalence was swept away by a wave of protective fear, a deep desire to ensure that nothing go wrong with this pregnancy, this little Pie-in-the-making.

It has been more than ten years since the last time I took an HPT hoping that it would be negative. How would I feel when I peed on that stick, I wondered yesterday afternoon – would I become eager to see that second line in the window, simply through sheer force of habit?

*****

It was the trivial things that occupied my attention yesterday. "Should we sell our house before or after the baby is born?" I wondered, as I tidied up the kids’ rooms and tried to picture where we would put another toddler bed. "What brand of mini-van should we buy?" I asked myself, as I buckled the kids into their carseats and observed that there is simply no way to fit an infant’s bucket carrier between the two hefty convertible carseats that fill the back of our four-door Saturn.

We can buy a bigger house and a bigger car, I realized, but what about a bigger lap? As Pie and Bub jostled for position, each one poised precariously on one knee, I thought about how glad I was that the Pie had come along, just in time to coax Bub out of his self-enclosed world of puzzles and habits, to teach him to laugh, to hug, and to ask plaintively, "Are you okay, Pie?" as he crushes his sister beneath him in a concerned and yet passive aggressive tackle. Is there room in our family for another child? Would the Pie be as willing to share my affection as Bub has been?

*****

6:00 pm: Hubby calls from the grocery store. Is there anything I need him to pick up? Orange juice, I say, and a pregnancy test.
6:40 pm: I pee on the stick, and watch the fluid wash through the windows. The second line shows up instantly, bold and pink. The first window remains resolutely blank.
6:42 pm: The results box is still empty, like a bolt of white linen. I take my emotional temperature, checking for the even the faintest hint of regret. Instead, I feel gratitude. Our little family is whole and complete, and it will stay this way awhile longer, at least. And I’m glad, so glad. We’re cozy this way.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Unfair Why's (2006 Edition)

My first-year Psych prof once advanced the theory that flies do not possess volition: they buzz around randomly and ricochet off various objects, but they are incapable of forming plans or executing motivated actions. At best, they might land on a particularly fragrant pile of dog poop and stay there for awhile. It struck me at once that this theory could be applied to the otherwise inexplicable behaviour of men.

Keep in mind that I was 19 years old; along with all of my friends, I was constantly embroiled in the always-puzzling task of decoding the strange, contradictory behaviour of men. They ask you out for coffee, climb on top of you in the passenger seat of the car, and then they don’t call. They hold your hand romantically as you walk through the autumn leaves, but then claim that you’re just friends. They call every day for a week and even throw out the l-word, and then they lose interest. They flirt madly whenever you meet at a party, but then never follow through. Like most 19-year-olds, I was devoting much of my time to deciphering these behaviours, trying to patch together a meaningful pattern that would reveal the feelings and intentions of the man in question.

And then, that afternoon in the lecture theatre, it all became clear. Men were not giving out mixed signals; they simply were not giving out signals at all. For women, almost every interaction with the opposite sex has a coded message: a compliment signals romantic interest, a kiss irrevocably transforms the nature of a friendship, and an unnecessarily early departure from a social gathering means that the guy I was chatting with before I left has no more than friend-potential. This was the fundamental mistake that we had all been making, my girlfriends and I: we assumed that men were communicating something through their actions rather than simply reacting to the impulse of the moment; we assumed they were capable of volition, of motivated action as opposed to pure stimulus-response. When a guy lurches across the gear shift into your lap, he’s not trying to convey a message about the future of the relationship: to him, you’re just a particularly fragrant pile of dog poop.

Over the years, some have found my "Fly Theory" to be brilliantly insightful, while others have dismissed it as offensive, sexist, and absurd. The theory does not necessarily have to be true to be useful, however, and its primary use has always been to curtail the endless and fruitless asking of "Why?" Far better, always, to assume that there is no why.

If that is true of men, it’s even more true of babies. Nothing frustrated me more, when Bub was a newborn, than the confident proclamation, "Babies cry for a reason." In his case, we learned to look for a reason if he wasn’t crying. What had stopped him? Could we patent the manoeuvre and sell it on the black market? Crying was his default setting – there was no motivation for it, no goal to it, no reason behind it, and our job as parents was to fine-tune the tactics required to put the crying on pause – just the right jiggle, to just the right song ("Baby Beluga"), with just the right assortment of colourful toys to look at. When the correct balance was achieved, the crying would halt, but it always remained crouched in the corner of the room, waiting to leap out as soon as our efforts flagged.

The first survival strategy I learned as a parent was never to ask why Bub was crying. Somehow, though, I’ve never been able to apply that lesson to sleep. Why did he wake up at 5:00 this morning? Was he too hot? Was he too cold? Is he scared of the dark? Is he testing boundaries? Is his bedtime too early? Is his bedtime too late? Hubby and I have been batting this conversational ball back and forth for two weeks now, and no matter how monotonous and pointless the conversation becomes, we just can’t seem to drop it.

One thing this conversation reminds me of is the picture book Go, Dog, Go! ("They’re all going up to the top of that tree! Why? Will they work there? Will they play there? What is up there on top of that tree?") The other thing it reminds me of is a list I compiled nineteen Octobers ago of the "Unfair Why’s." I was sixteen years old, I had no boyfriend, and I distilled my whole life into thirteen questions. Not all of them began with the word "why" (there are some whens and whats and hows in there too), but all of them are variations on the theme of question #10: "Why me??" How do I know I won’t end up as an old maid? Why are the only boys who like me the nerdy ones I wouldn’t consider liking? What if everyone thinks of me as one of the nerdy ones they wouldn’t consider liking? The list culminated in item #13: "Why are there so many unfair why’s?" (I was really fun to hang around with when I was sixteen. You would’ve liked me.)

So in the spirit of recapturing my lost youth and flagrantly disregarding the wisdom of the Fly Theory (as applied to toddlers), here is my updated list of the Unfair Why’s:

1. Why did the Pie wake up early this morning even though she had a late bedtime last night? (I know, I know, fellow Weissbluth readers, sleep begets sleep. Read on.)
2. Why did the Pie wake up early yesterday morning even though she had an early bedtime the night before?
3. Why is the Bub screaming like a banshee in the middle of the night? (factors considered and eliminated: too cold, too hot, too dark, too hungry; possible factors remaining: nightmares, separation anxiety, wilfulness, pure native cussedness)
4. Why does Bub settle down happily and obediently when Grandpa puts him to bed, only to shriek, cry, and run from the room when mummy or daddy try to do so?
5. Why does Bub eagerly wolf down lima beans and chick peas, but fix us with a suspicious glare and push away our proffered spoonfuls of apple crisp?
6. "Why do I say bub? Why do I love pie?" (That one’s not actually about my children; it’s a summary of Wolverine’s existential crisis in an X-Men comic. I found it after doing a Google search on my blog title and I’ve been looking for a chance to use it ever since.)
7. Why does the Pie always turn away from the camera one nano-second before the flash goes off?
8. Why is Bub’s hair always at its wildest when it’s been freshly washed?
9. Why am I blogging right now instead of taking a nap?
10. Why can hubby return to sleep within seconds of Bub’s nighttime banshee-screaming, while I lie awake for hours, flinching at every noise?
11. Why is there no new episode of House tomorrow night?
12. Why does my tummy still look exactly the same as it did when I was twelve weeks pregnant?
13. Why are there so many unfair why’s?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Sunday Report

1. Sleep report:
2:00-3:00 am: Bub awake, frantic
3:00-4:00 am: Bub returns to sleep; I lie awake, trying to figure out where to buy a night-light for Bub’s room
4:00-5:00 am: asleep on the couch downstairs, dreaming that I’m wandering around the department store, looking for a night-light
5:00 am: Pie wakes up, doing her usual 5-minute cycle of chatter/silence/crying (lather, rinse, repeat)
5:20 am: Bub announces, from his bed, "It’s the Pie!" (everybody gets up)
11:00 am: after a two-hour nap and two cups of coffee, I’m ready to start blogging my day.

2. Blogger in beta report:
I’ve been nervous about upgrading to Blogger in beta, but since the commenting glitches seem to have been resolved, I girded my loins and made the switch on Friday, so I could spend the weekend tinkering. And I’m loving it. Categories! New fonts and colours! I’ve switched to a sans-serif font for the main text of my blog. What do you think – do you find this easier to read?

3. SiteMeter report:
Apparently, if you spend the day republishing every post you’ve ever written (adding labels – sorry for the inconvenience, Bloglines subscribers!), you get a SiteMeter full of click-overs from Spanish and Dutch blogs, and blogs with names like "cutehotties.blogspot.com." Are those all "Next Blog" hits, generated by yesterday’s frantic pace of publishing?

4. Google report:
Kittenpie has often alluded to the prevalence of Google hits on her blog from people looking for Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. I am pleased to report that math geeks are at least as illiterate as students looking to plagiarize their book reports: ever since my post on The Mathematics of Attraction, I’ve seen a steady stream of Google searches for "pie in mathematics."

5. Rage report:
Despite last night’s precedent-setting new level of sleep deprivation, I’ve managed to avoid total meltdown today (so far; it’s still early). The trick seems to be to avoid housework, along with all interaction with other human beings.

*****

One of the coping mechanisms that didn’t make the list in my most recent post is Flippancy: it takes an awful lot to turn off my faucet of lame jokes and self-mockery. I don’t know if that tactic is native to me; certainly I knew nothing of it as a teenager, when I treated all my troubles with the utmost of seriousness. I suspect I’ve learned it from my husband, for whom the adjective "earnest" is the ultimate condemnation. I’ve always had a sneaking preference for sincerity (it’s why I prefer The Joshua Tree to Achtung, Baby), yet I’ve acquired a crippling inhibition that prevents me from uttering ordinary sentiments like thanks, sympathy, or admiration.

I want to write a moving tribute to all the people who sent links in response to my rage post. Many of you pointed me to posts you had written already on this subject in the heat of the moment, while others wrote with wisdom and honesty about the dark side of mothering: not just the anger but also the guilt, frustration, and self-doubt. A little while ago I used a quote from the movie Shadowlands: we read to know we’re not alone. I’ve rarely felt more alone than when in the grip of maternal rage, and I’ve rarely felt such relief at the antidote to that sense of isolation. So instead of writing the heartfelt tribute that these posts deserve, I’ll just slap them on at the end of this dog’s breakfast of a post, and let them speak for themselves.

Iowadrift: Hissing
Three Times Three: The Ugly Truth
POW: Drama
Rock the Cradle: Let’s go back in time
Postcards from the Mothership: Tired oh tired, yes so very very tired
Life, the Universe and Everything: Wall Rage
Write About Here (Cinnamon Gurl): The Other Mother
The Ravin’ Picture Maven: Whirling dervish
Better Make it a Double: Mother Rage
Her Bad Mother: Survivor: Child Island
Life of 'Pie: Seeing Red Stop Signs
Crunchy Carpets: Fine, I will step up to the confessional
Snickollet: The Beast Within
Mamalang: I'm a big doh head
Major Bedhead: A rotten mother

Friday, October 13, 2006

What Makes You Happy?

Bobita’s post on optimism yesterday reminded me of a book I scrammed (speedily crammed) at the bookstore once: Julie K. Norem’s The Positive Power of Negative Thinking. Norem’s thesis is that pessimism gets a bad rap in our culture (and by "our," she clearly means "American" – I suspect that Canadian culture is a bit more skeptical about the value of optimism). According to conventional wisdom, optimism is healthy and normal; pessimists are admonished to "cheer up" and "think positive" so as to maximize their happiness and success. Norem found, however, that people who are temperamentally anxious actually function better as pessimists than they do as optimists. She coined the term defensive pessimism to describe the functional, strategic use of pessimistic thinking to help overcome anxiety.

The part of the book I remember best is a study in which subjects were required to perform an anxiety-inducing task, like public speaking. Optimists generally coach themselves for such tasks by boosting their self-image ("I think I can, I think I can"), while pessimists use their time backstage to envision the worst-case scenarios. For the purposes of the experiment, subjects were coached by researchers prior to their performance: the optimists were asked to think about how they would feel if they failed and made fools of themselves, while pessimists were given lots of encouragement of the "don’t worry, you’ll be great!" variety. Both groups performed poorly under this regime – the pessimists actually did better when allowed to describe their worst fears before going onstage. Norem’s theory is that envisioning worst-case scenarios can actually bolster an anxious person’s confidence; having visualized failure, the pessimist feels that nothing can take her by surprise.

One purpose of the book is to encourage parents to recognize defensive pessimism in their children. Since optimism is widespread and culturally valued, children are especially vulnerable to being coached out of their coping mechanisms by well-meaning parents. I found this intriguing because I recognized the pattern in reverse: I’m an optimist by temperament (a trait I inherited from my father who believes, with some justice, that if he refuses to acknowledge negative things, they will just go away). Throughout my childhood, however, I was coached in the techniques of defensive pessimism by my anxiety-prone mother. Like Anne of Green Gables, I always felt that looking forward to things was half the fun, but I couldn’t help but notice my mother wincing uncomfortably when I wriggled in anticipation of the upcoming school play or field trip. "Don’t get your hopes up!" she admonished constantly, "and then you won’t be disappointed."

As a result, my grab bag of psychological coping mechanisms bulges uncomfortably with the blithely optimistic traits I inherited from my father and the defensive strategies I was trained in so painstakingly by my mother. And yet both approaches are functional – I suspect that optimism and pessimism are not really things that you are; they’re things we do, strategies we employ depending upon the situation. When I’m down on my luck, here are the habits I fall back on:

  • Sour Grapes: As Mr. Collins observes after Lizzy turns down his proposal, "resignation is never so perfect as when the blessing denied begins to lose somewhat of its value in our estimation." I often think of how isolated and miserable I would be if I had landed one of those appealing tenure-track jobs I interviewed for in Ottawa and Victoria (two of Canada’s most beautiful cities); I would be far away from friends and family, I would be struggling to balance the task of raising two toddlers with the demands of a full-time academic career, and I would have no grandparents on call, no sister to drop by twice a week for an afternoon romp with her niece and nephew. And the politics! English departments are rife with in-fighting and petty competition. It was a pair of lucky escapes I had, there. The Sour Grapes coping mechanism doesn’t deserve the mockery it gets at the hands of Aesop; it’s a good, solid, happiness-boosting habit. It’s possible that my conscious awareness of this technique undermines its effectiveness, but the up-side of that is that I can be vigilant about avoiding Sour Grapes’ meaner cousin, Holier than Thou. It is always tempting to take refuge from disappointment in the comforting reflection that I am morally superior to the soulless careerists who scooped those jobs out from under me. Self-mockery appears to be the best defense against this temptation, which might otherwise become overwhelming.

  • Denial: "I can honestly say that getting married to my husband was the best decision I ever made." I can still remember the thud of shock I felt when a new friend uttered those words a few short months after my first wedding. I knew that there was no way I could say such a thing: marriage had turned out to be far, far different from what I had expected (a lot more playing of computer games, a lot less conversation; a lot more arguing about the housework, a lot less sex). At the same time, I was convinced that my friend’s experience was rare. Everybody knows that marriage is hard work; everybody knows that passion and excitement don’t last forever. For five years, those convictions defended me from the realization that there’s a difference between waning passion and actual dislike, that there’s a difference between a bored husband and a husband who hopes you get killed while driving on the 401 (ha! just remembered that tidbit, one of many revelations that came out during the post-mortem analysis). Denial has its dangers – it’s not terrifically useful, for instance, for determining when to leave a bad relationship – but since leaving wasn’t really an option for me anyway, Denial allowed me to function more or less happily in the midst of my "normal" (read: doomed) marriage.

  • Low Expectations: Despite all my mother’s admonitions, I have never quite managed to stop getting my hopes up. I always believe that the evil alliance on Survivor will be broken (even in the face of overwhelming numerical odds); I continue to root for Canadian figure skaters at the Olympics (even after Kurt Browning’s two consecutive fourth-place finishes). Where the Low Expectations come in handy is in regards to myself: I am constantly amazed and delighted by my own prowess at the most mundane of tasks. This morning I managed to get out of the house before 9:30 am. Both children were dressed, I had two sippy cups in tow (50% juice, 50% water), the breakfast dishes were cleared away, and one out of two beds was made. I’m a star, I tell you. I often feel a sense of incredulity at the fact that I can operate a motor vehicle; I hurtle through intersections marveling at my power and grown-up-ness. Career disappointments notwithstanding, I still often feel faintly surprised that I am employed at all, in any capacity. This ability to be impressed by trifles extends to my virtues as well: one of the things I appreciate most in myself is my willingness to accept support from others. When I turn to friends for help, I envision how fulfilling they must find my reliance on their advice. This is one of the easier virtues to acquire, and there are numerous side benefits to it as well, ranging from yummy compliments to even yummier chocolate desserts. I devour them all greedily, express my gratitude wholeheartedly, and pat myself on the back when I see how good it makes people feel to make me so happy.

So there are a few of my happiness-inducing coping mechanisms. What are yours?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Gateway Drug

I am a staunch proponent of pacifier use. It’s part of my parenting philosophy, which is to do whatever makes life easier now and let later worry about itself. (So far, that’s panned out really well for me; see previous posts.) When Bub was a newborn, he was rarely inconsolable, but he always wanted to cry – he had to be tricked out of it by madcap dancing elephants bobbing in front of his face or bubbly fish rocking back and forth in the Ocean Wonders aquarium until the phht phht phhht phhht of the bubbles relaxed his vigilance and allowed sleep to steal over him unobserved. When he awoke twenty minutes later, it was always with a scream of rage at the deception.

For those first four weeks, the pacifier was both friend and enemy – when nothing else would work I would slip it into Bub’s mouth and hold it there until that moment when he stopped struggling to spit it out: as he took his first few sucks, his whole body would relax and his eyes would drift shut. And then I would watch him sleep, nervously eyeing his tightly closed lips, while phrases like "bad latch" and "nipple confusion" rang in my ears as I flinched in anticipation of imagined pain, blaming myself already for compromising the breastfeeding relationship by failing to follow Dr. Jack Newman’s simple instructions. Good times.

One of the first milestones I celebrate with my babies is the four-week mark, when the embargo on pacifier use is lifted and the spectre of nipple confusion recedes. I cheerfully ignore the experts who suggest that pacifiers should be withheld for the first six weeks, and wonder sometimes if nipple confusion isn't just a bogeyman invented by the same people who suggest that breastfeeding mothers should avoid Tylenol, echinacia, and lanolin creams because there are no reliably conducted double-blind studies proving that they are safe (and, of course, all substances should be considered dangerous to the breastfeeding baby until proven otherwise). After four weeks, my babies have no-holds-barred access to their pacifiers, or soothers, as we call them in preference to my mother-in-law’s favourite term "the plug." That term always suggests to me that these devices are faintly disreputable, and disreputable for precisely the same reason that I love them so much: because they stop the baby from crying. Is that sentiment a hold-over from the days when doctors thought crying was essential for the baby’s lung development? Or is avoidance of the "plug" a badge of honour among mothers tough enough to parent without it?

Setting aside the vague atmosphere of disapproval surrounding pacifier use, the real bugaboo (in the pre-stroller sense of the word) is the end game. I’ve read bone-chilling tales about the de-tox process, and responded with my usual tactic: avoidance and denial. After Drs. Sears and Weissbluth wound up their six-month-long boxing match in my brain, I swore off both the baby-advice books and the long-term perspective they inculcate: it’s hard enough dealing with a night-waking baby without worrying about how his sleep habits and/or my inconsistent response to them will affect his long-term emotional well-being. Deal with the problem at hand, and let the future take care of itself – that’s my philosophy.

So I’m reckless with the soothers, attaching them to my babies with clips, littering them about the crib, popping them in whenever the Pie reaches out with that exclamation of "sooz!" that means either "shoes," "juice" or "soothers" depending on the context. And with the Bub, we got lucky: when he was two-and-a-half, he starting chewing through his pacifiers, so I tossed out the punctured ones and bought a new pack. He took one, gave it an experimental suck, and handed it back to me in disgust. He took the second one, repeated his test, and handed it back as well. Then he rolled over and went to sleep, and never looked back. Occasionally he finds one of the Pie’s pacifiers lying around and places it in her mouth with solemn care, but he would never dream of taking a swig himself.

So I’m not one to be put off by alarmist stories of nipple confusion, social disapproval, or twitchy three-year-olds begging for just one more hit. That said, I have been a little uncomfortable lately with the way the Pie wields her soother like a trendy accessory. As we read stories together before bedtime, she reaches up to pop out the soother whenever she wants to make a comment, punctuating her cries of "Kitty! Meow!" by waving it expansively in the air before casually putting it back in her mouth, letting it hang loosely for a moment and then sucking in deeply for a nice long drag. I can almost see the deeply-etched lines of Cigarette-Smoking Man’s face, hear her colluding with aliens to take over the planet. Anti-smoking advocates have raised awareness of the prevalence of tobacco advertising directed at children; have they given sufficient attention to the relationship between smoking and early pacifier use? And should I be taking away her soothers until a reliably conducted double-blind study proves that her cries of "sooz" will not be replaced fifteen years down the road by "Gimme another ciggy-butt"?


You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

In Case You Need a Laugh as Much as I Do

ROFL button

Mommy Off the Record and IzzyMom have started an exciting new blogiday: the ROFL awards. The great thing about this particular award is the objective criteria used to determine the nominees: you simply measure the volume of tears dripping off your chin (rounding off to the nearest millilitre) and cast your vote accordingly.

My nomination (coming in at 3.46 litres) is Kristen’s post, Dreamland, from Home on the Fringe. One of the drawbacks to a funny-award (and to comedy clubs) is that things are often funnier when you don’t know ahead of time that they’re going to be funny. So I’ve tested this post with multiple re-reads, and every time I go back, I can feel that weightless sensation as the laughter shaves years from my age (and based on the prevalence of pooping, barfing, farting, and nose-picking among this month’s winners, all the laughter has reduced most of us bloggers to a four-year-old’s mentality already).

For this month’s winners, go here and here. And whatever you do, make sure you click on Slacker-Mom’s link to this German guide to the birds and the bees. My college German is a bit rusty, but the text is still hilarious (and anyone who can translate the terms "Scheide," "Glied" and "Hodensack" for me will earn my deepest gratitude). Enjoy!

*****

At Emmie’s suggestion, I’m putting out not so much a "call" as a tentative query. Does anyone have a post about rage simmering on the back burner? I don’t know that I personally would want to write a rage post just out of intellectual interest – for me, the act of writing yesterday’s post was deeply cathartic. I spent the morning keeping track of all the absurd little things that made my chest tighten and my breath go shallow with the effort of keeping the cyclone contained – and then I realized that I had entered "compose" mode. The relief was immediate: I stepped into that tiny space of distance from myself, selecting words and images and rehearsing them in my head as I scrubbed the kitchen floor with more than my usual degree of elbow grease. As therapy, writing out my rage is invaluable.

Aside from such venting, is there value in talking/blogging about our rage? Like Cinnamon Gurl, I’ve seen those startled looks of blank disbelief, like the woman at my moms’ group who gaped openly when I mentioned my collection of cardboard paper towel rolls (suitable for banging the wall, or the husband who steps between me and the wall for fear that I’ll damage the paint). And that reaction is so much less helpful, really, than that of my friend who showed me the dent in her wall, and the bandaid on the fist that put it there.

It was not without a twinge of misgiving that I hit "publish" on that post. I was braced for sympathy, and what I found instead was recognition: far more recognition than I had ever expected. So those of you who have met that woman, the angry one, the tight-lipped one, the fist-through-a-doorway one: Where does that rage come from? What are the safe ways you’ve found to express it? How do we incorporate that experience into our sense of ourselves as mothers? If you’ve got something to say, and it will help you to say it, write a post about your rage and let me know about it. I’ll decide what to do with the links when I see how many takers I get – somehow a link-fest love-a-thon doesn’t seem like quite the right approach. Maybe I’ll write a haiku and link them up that way: Yesterday’s jeans are / on the floor, sprawled. How can I / vacuum you bastard?

Monday, October 09, 2006

Rage

Yesterday’s jeans lie where they were tossed, so casually, last night (that is, on top of the day before’s jeans), wallet and change still heavy in the pocket.

The entrance to the basement storage area is blocked by a barricade made up of the infant swing (borrowed and never returned), exersaucer, empty diaper boxes, and a full garbage bag that has been stowed there hastily, eliminating access to the empty spaces that lie behind this row of awkward, hard-to-move stuff.

This morning, I picked up four pieces of fossilized cat poo in the areas of my basement to which I could achieve access.

This morning, the Pie reached, pointed, and cried for the following out-of-reach-items: a roll of paper towels, Play-doh, my cell phone, Bub’s crayons, Bub’s half-finished drawing, the iron.

*****

I remember being this person, this woman who changes diapers just a little less gently than usual, with no games of "Pizza, Pickle, Pumpernickel" or "This Little Piggy," unsmiling because the effort of cracking a smile might let loose all those bottled-up words, the "Go ahead and cry, then, see if I care," the "Here you go, you can have them, I don’t care what you do with them," the "I quit. I quit I quit I quit." Does it count that I don’t say these words aloud, to children who wouldn’t understand them nearly as well as they read the meaning of my stiff expression, my unbending posture? I am fooling no one, here.

I remember the day when Bub was maybe seven months old; all day he had been his bored-and-angry, don’t-put-me-down-for-a-second self, and then, 45 minutes into his nap, he woke up screaming. I put him to my breast, thinking of all the poison he was drinking in with his mother’s milk: rage, resentment, self-hatred. And then, for the first time in months, he fell asleep as he nursed, letting the nipple slip out of his soft, relaxed mouth. As we cuddled in the old afghan-covered armchair by the window, I watched the sparrows plopping worms into the wide-open squawking mouths of their babies, barely visible in the nest, and I prayed for love, joy, peace, and patience. I looked around Bub’s room, noticing the cross-stitched Blue Jean Teddy quilt hanging on the wall, enjoying the three turtles stacked up, one on top of the other, on the diaper sorter hanging on the change table. With every exhalation (mine and his), I felt my rage dissipate.

And then he woke up, crying, and I wanted to shake him or hurl him to the ground, to lock him in this room and just walk away, and I was scared by my rage, its sneakiness, the way it lies in wait so imperceptibly, before it strikes.

*****

They’re funny, some of the things that have enraged me today. It’s tempting to joke about the massive thighs that appear, as if by magic, when I sit down in front of a full-length mirror (I stand up quickly, and they disappear). Or about the tightly coiled grey hairs that stick straight up when my hair is parted, regrowth from that day a couple of weeks ago when I plucked out as much of the grey as I could find, permanently dispelling the myth that there are only six of them. I can relish the absurdity of my irritation with the clear, sunny fall weather we’re having today – perfect weather for the family nature walk we had planned, before I wasted the morning dusting and vacuuming because I’m a slave to my routines and too grouchy to have fun.

Joking about that might distract me from the way the Pie keeps pulling at her right ear, confirming that her ear infection is back (if it ever left), which would be good news (in that a treatable infection is preferable to a permanent personality change) if it weren’t for the way that the words "antibiotic-resistant super-infection" keep making me feel like I want to throw up (because like it or not, I did this to her – I did it each time I scheduled her doses of amoxicillin six hours apart instead of eight so I wouldn’t have to wake her, each time I got her up at 11 pm to pour a tablespoon of the sticky banana-flavoured liquid into her slackened mouth, only to watch it dribble down her neck and into her chin where I’d find it, crusted, the next morning).

*****

It’s been a week now, I guess, since I’ve had a four-hour block of sleep, uninterrupted by the Bub’s nighttime visits. I am reminded of those baby-care books that sternly admonish the reader to consider whether her infant’s night-waking could be the result of her own wish to continue nighttime breastfeeding. I was never one to cherish those quiet hours – I spent them half-awake, desperately longing to crawl back under the covers and return to sleep. So I always read those admonishments with disbelief, knowing that whatever the reasons were for my baby’s night-waking habit, my desire to get up several times a night was not one of them.

And yet I can see that logic now. Bub is so sweet and malleable in the middle of the night – his cries are quieted instantly as I take him by the hand to lead him back to his room; he scrambles obediently back into his bed and settles with such evident satisfaction into the cozy warmth of his blankets, clutching doggy and blankie to his chest. From beginning to end, these nocturnal wanderings take no more than 60 seconds. But then it’s a half hour before I can return to sleep. Or, if it’s later than 5:00, I don’t return to sleep at all. Hubby can go back to bed for an extra hour or two on weekends, but once I’m up, I’m up (unless, that is, I have a milky newborn baby nestled on top of me, showing me how to breathe with the soft rise-and-fall of her own sweet chest). I don’t need a nap, in any case – what I need is a four-hour block of sleep, and for that sleep to occur sometime between 11 pm and 5 am.

Something is going to change around here. Because I hate this angry person I’m turning into – I recognize her (we’ve met before) and it’s time for her to go.

Postscript: We got out for our nature walk after all, following an early nap from the Pie, who very nearly drifted off in her high chair at lunchtime. We walked along a muddy, leaf-strewn path that snaked by a little creek, and the Pie played with yellow leaves while the Bub slipped into a mud puddle. With the following results:





And the tornado of rage is gone, for now, so I gave him a hug and a kiss (after taking the appropriate photos, of course), and as we headed for the car he gave a little skip and said, "Go for a walk. Awesome!"

The Original Perfect Post Awards

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Ten by Ten

My hundredth post…

Advertising Slogans for my Blog (generated here)
1. Be Young, Have Fun, Drink Bub and Pie.
2. It’s Good to Talk Bub and Pie.
3. Tough on Dirt, Gentle on Bub and Pie. (yup – that’s me.)
4. Moving at the Speed of Bub and Pie.
5. You Like Bub and Pie. Bub and Pie Likes You.
6. Nothing Comes Between Me and My Bub and Pie. (Does this refer to my children? Or my blog? You decide!)
7. We Bring the Good Bub and Pie to Life.
8. The Bub and Pie Effect.
9. 151 Countries, One Bub and Pie.
10. Thank Bub and Pie It’s Friday.

Pieces of Pie
(I talk a lot about the Bub on this blog, so every so often it’s time to give the baby sister center stage.)
1. When she wants to give you a kiss, she will accept no refusals.
2. She wears poofy pink dresses and wields a mean power drill.
3. After fourteen months of good-natured, easy-going behaviour, she has realized that there are Things That She Wants, that my job is to Guess What They Are, and if I fail the Wrath of the Pie will be Unleashed. I attribute this to her discovery of the concepts of free will and personal agency.
4. On the other hand, her newly demanding, passionate temperament may be a rebounding ear infection caused by my inability to get her to swallow her full dose of amoxicillin (you can lead a baby to antibiotics but you can’t make her drink).
5. She has a 50-word vocabulary and has begun to attempt short phrases like "Go sleep" and "Seeya-later!" (an extension of the dearly beloved "Buh-bye!").
6. Her newest passion = trains.
7. After being a champion napper for the last eight months or so, she is stuck at the 1.5 nap level – if she sleeps in the morning (even for half an hour), she’s awake all afternoon, but if we keep her up in the morning, she’s miserable (this item may be related to item #3).
8. She has downy, light-brown hair on the top of her head, but all around the back it’s tightly coiled curls.
9. She can say no. (No, however, does not always mean no.)
10. Each afternoon at around five o’clock she starts up the chorus: "Da-dye! Da-dye!" (he eventually gets home at around ten after six).

Things That Make Me Go Hmmmm…
1. The writers of Einstein Never Used Flashcards recommend the following language-enhancing parental response to a three-year-old’s request for a slice of bread: "Do you remember the bread I used for your sandwich yesterday? It was pumpernickel bread. Pumpernickel is a black bread. Have you ever tried black bread before?" The children of parents who spoke this way tended to have highly advanced language skills by age 5. Despite some inner misgivings, I tried this out on the Bub: "Would you like one slice of apple, or two? These are McIntosh apples. They are organically grown!" His response? He barked out "Two!" grabbed the apples and ran out of the room before I could get as far as "–tosh." (Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good book. But to a mother of a speech-delayed child, the idea of chatting casually about pumpernickel bread is, let’s say, counter-intuitive. I think I’ll work on the concept of pumpernickel bread sometime after we’ve established the distinction between "yesterday" and "tomorrow.")
2. Another tidbit from ENUFC: children in professional families hear an average of more than 2000 words per hour. The authors do not specify whether these are words directed to the child (in which case I fall considerably behind the welfare-family average of 600 words/hour), or whether the total includes: (1) phone conversations analyzing the deteriorating relationship between Brad and Angelina, (2) arguments with the spouse over whose turn it is to clean the cat litter, or (3) muttered rantings against old men who write letters to the local newspaper complaining about public breastfeeding.
3. Legwarmers.
4. Deep-fried Snickers bars.
5. According to the label, the Pillsbury apple turnovers at my grocery store contain 0.1 grams of trans fat. But the raspberry turnovers contain 2.5 grams of fat per turnover. Who knew that raspberries contained that much fat? (Upon further investigation, the expiration dates suggest that the apple turnovers represent the new, improved product: all the saturated fat you’ve come to expect from Pillsbury, without those nasty hydrogenated oils!)
6. Socks with sandals.
7. When I picked up the kids from daycare the other day, Bub came to the door chanting, "A bat! A bat! Do not sit on a bat!" Assuming that he was reciting a modified version of Hop on Pop, I replied, "No, Pat, no! Don’t sit on that!" and thought nothing more of it. The next day when I dropped the kids off, my home-care provider showed me what she found when she went to clean up the blocks Bub had been playing with:



8. Jack, Kate, and Sawyer have all had opportunities to converse with the Others, and yet none of them has said, "What the hell is WRONG with you people?"
9. Yesterday, I slept in until 8:00 while hubby got up with the kids, and then I dragged around all day yawning and groaning. Today, I was up at 6:20 (see below), and I felt fine.
10. Scraping the bottom of the barrel here, I decided to check SiteMeter for some silly Google searches and the most recent referral on the list was a search on the terms "caught in the buff." Huh? Now, the next one on the list – "baby, chubby, round, plump" – I can better understand. But if you really want the Google hits? Just write about McCain Deep ‘n’ Delicious cake (I get an average of about two or three hits a day on that one).

Times at Which Bub has Gotten Out of Bed and Come to Our Room for a Tuck-In
1. Oct. 6, 1:30 am.
2. Oct. 6, 4:30 am.
3. Oct. 6, 5:30 am.
4. Oct. 6, 6:30 am (we identify the problem: his room is too cold).
5. Oct. 7, 4:45 am (deflating my hopes that the new flannel sheets and polar fleece blanket would solve the problem).
6. Oct. 7, 5:20 am (asking for doggy and blankie, which were buried under the new warm, cozy blanket).
7. Oct. 7, 7:00 am (hubby gets up while I remain catatonic for an additional hour).
8. Oct. 7, 11:40 pm (wailing – maybe his room is too hot?).
9. Oct. 8, 1:30 am.
10. Oct. 8, 6:20 am (cuddled up under the covers next to me, calling out the numbers at 60-second intervals: 23, 24, 25, 26 – at which point I get up and put on a pot of strong coffee).

My Favourite Posts (or, 10% of My Output So Far)
1. Bless Me Mother, For I Have Sinned (this was the post that helped dispel my new-blogger jitters, made me take a deep breath and say, "Okay, I think I can do this")
2. Finding Out
3. Diary Dearest
4. Thomas the Propaganda Engine
5. Judge Not
6. Psalm 30:5 (the Pie’s birth story – I’ve never been so happy and excited to post something, simply because it meant so much to me)
7. Pride and Joy
8. A Hogwarts Guide to Infant Care
9. These Boots Were Made for Talkin’
10. The Evolution of Friendship (one of those posts that leap from your brain, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus – fun and effortless)

Photos of My Kids

then and now...









Picture Books Bub Loves
1. The Cat in the Hat
2. Hop on Pop
3. In a People House
4. Go, Dog, Go!
5. Love You Forever
6. Marvin Wanted More
7. "numbers Cheerios book"
8. Noah’s Big Boat
9. The Fat Cat
10. The Day the Babies Crawled Away

Foods Eaten at Thanksgiving Dinner
1. turkey
2. stuffing
3. mashed potatoes and gravy
4. red wine
5. raspberry/cranberry juice
6. corn pudding
7. carrots and peas
8. apple-turnip brown sugar bake
9. pumpkin pie
10. real whipped cream on top (instead of the attractively titled "yogourt cheese" my health-conscious mother usually substitutes)

…and I get to do it all again tomorrow at my in-laws’ house.

Disadvantages to Having Kids Close in Age
1. carrying around a 25-30 lb. toddler during the third trimester
2. really, everything about the third trimester
3. between 4 and 8 poopy diaper changes per day
4. muscle spasms from carrying around double-weight diaper bag
5. risk of toddler aggression toward the baby
6. fighting over shared toys
7. younger child receives assertiveness training from having to fight over every toy
8. no visiting open play areas unless adult-child ratio is at least 1:1
9. no passenger seating in the back seat of the car (except the 10-inch wide space between the two carseats)
10. conflicting nap schedules make it impossible to leave the house

Advantages to Having Kids Close in Age
1. the dual nap (long live the dual nap!)
2. the same toys are suitable for both children
3. no time to forget all the hard-won knowledge from the first time around
4. you can get the most from your investment in the double stroller
5. babies can be boring, and toddlers can be monotonous, but together they’re full of variety
6. minimal adjustment period upon arrival of second baby (since life never really got back to any semblance of ‘normal’ anyway)
7. totally compatible musical tastes (ranging from Raffi to Fred Penner)
8. not one but two voices belting out "E-I-E-I-O" in the back seat of the car
9. contagious laughter
10. watching as the children awaken one another to social awareness; watching them figure out what the word love means by loving each other

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Glutton for Punishment

While visiting my parents a couple of weeks ago, I came across a picture book my sister ordered twenty years ago from the Scholastic catalogue (the one that was distributed at school when we were kids). Based on a Danish folktale and entitled Fat Cat, this book does not have a modern sensibility: it features a little orange cat with a wonderfully cross expression who eats everything and everyone he sees, starting with his mistress’s gruel and culminating in seven girls dancing and a lady with a pink parasol. The rhythm of the story is addictive, and since sharing the book with Bub, I constantly find myself muttering under my breath,

I ate the gruel
and the pot
and the old woman too
and Skohottentot
and Skolinkenlot
and five birds in a flock…
… and now I am going to also eat YOU!

(There is nothing more enchanting, by the way, than the innocent treble tones of a toddler declaring "I ate Sko – [pause] – tot, and Skowinkenwot, and five birds in a fwock … and now I am going to also eat YOU!" And I only wish I could reproduce for you the crispness of the letter ‘t,’ the rising and falling inflection he infuses into the word "fat," as in "What have you been eating, my little cat? You are so fa-at!")

This story belongs to the robust tradition of early folk tales: the engaging little cat gets bigger and bigger until finally he meets up with an ax-wielding woodcutter who chops him open and sets all his victims free (including the old woman, who grabs her pot of gruel and heads home with it). The illustrations do their best to counteract the violence of the tale: the only time Fat Cat is depicted eating is on the very first page, where he lifts a spoonful of gruel to his mouth with evident satisfaction. And on the last page, the cat, now much reduced in size, gets a nice pat on the shoulder from the woodcutter as he sits there with an X-shaped bandage on his tummy and a rather startled expression.

Such window-dressing aside, this story is violent and rather frightening: not only does it address the basic fear of being devoured by a predator, but it locates that menace in the innocent-seeming family pet (who turns on his doting owner long before he ever devours the hapless Skohottentot). Observing Bub’s evident enjoyment of the story, though, I doubt that this tale is addressing his deep anxieties and fears; he loves the story because he identifies with Fat Cat and thoroughly enjoys his daring defiance of authority figures ranging from the old woman to the parson with the crooked staff (whom the Fat Cat eats just prior to his unfortunate altercation with the woodcutter). Many stories for children indulge their gluttonous fantasies in this way; what most modern stories shy away from, though, is chopping open the protagonist at the end.

Modern retellings of fairy-tales also tend to downplay the violence directed at the protagonist. The versions of "Little Red Riding Hood" that I read as a child, for instance, strayed in various ways from Charles Perrault’s original ending (which, in case you were similarly deprived, goes like this: the little girl gets eaten by the wolf, nobody comes to rescue her, and it serves her right because you should never talk to strangers). Cautionary tales of this kind are no longer in vogue (though you can still occasionally find copies of Hilaire Belloc’s uproarious parodies, poems with titles like "Matilda, Who told Lies, and was Burned to Death" or "Henry King, Who chewed bits of String, and was early cut off in Dreadful Agonies"). The narrative arc of many children’s literature courses goes like this: in the old days, parents used books to manipulate and torment their children into good behaviour, but now we know better.

I’m not so sure about that, though. I think the chopping open of Fat Cat is part of the story’s appeal, not a flaw that needs to be corrected by a clever illustrator (he didn’t die! – look! he just had a C-section!). No matter how much a child identifies with the daring miscreant, there is still a pleasure in the restoration of order. The punishment reassures the reader that Fat Cat’s subversion of the animal-human hierarchy will not continue unchecked (nor, by extrapolation, would the child’s subversion of adult authority).

’Cause the thing is – Bub loves punishment. Much of his (limited) pretend play involves him catching his toys in the midst of their wrongdoing and administering the appropriate consequences. "Get down! Do not play up there!" he’ll bellow at his Weebles, and down they go. Even more fun, of course, is inciting the Pie to break the rules. Jumping up and down with glee, Bub shouts, "No, Pie, no!" and looks eagerly to me to provide retribution. This plan can go awry, however, if Bub and I do not agree on the rules of engagement. Yesterday, for instance, he was playing with the magnetic letters on the refrigerator when the Pie came along and stole one. She ran off with that look of fierce, joyful concentration on her face, and he followed with howls of dismay, pulling me by the hand to ensure my intervention. I did my best to convince him that fridge letters were a sharing toy, and when it became clear that I was not going to restore the moral order, he did the only thing left to do: turned to the television and pushed the power button (a well-known no-no). He looked me in the eye and ground out the words, "No, Bub, no!"

Um, okay. I pulled his hand away and repeated, "No, Bub, no!" A grin started to crinkle the corners of his eyes and mouth, but he tried again for good measure: forefinger extended towards the TV until I cautioned, "No, Bub, no!"

His relief was palpable. If I couldn’t be prevailed upon to punish the Pie, at least with his own transgression he could get me to step up and be the mom. Being punished himself, apparently, was vastly preferable to no punishment at all – was reassurance, I guess, that I was going to do my job of keeping the world spinning on its axis, so he could get on with his job of fighting me every step of the way.