Sunday, December 31, 2006

One Year Later

Last Year: I took hundreds of photos of the five-month-old Pie in her red velour Christmas romper.


This Year: I took a few blurry photos of the back of her head before giving up.

Last Year: The Pie wore purple stockings with her new candy-striped stripey dress.
This Year: When I tried to put on her tights, she politely but firmly requested "Pants!", and ended up going to church in blue jeans and a yellow turtleneck.

Last Year: The Pie’s diet consisted of breastmilk, delivered warm 5-6 times per day. (Even cereal was still a few weeks away.)
This Year: In a single day, she can consume cereal-and-sauce (applesauce) for breakfast, most of the roast beef out of my Quizno’s sandwich for lunch (with half a jar of sweet potato and a clementine orange), and meatballs, sweet potatoes, and two slices of pizza for supper (deluxe and Hawaiian – she especially loves the mushrooms, pineapple, and ham).

Last Year: When taken to the church nursery, the Pie would keep a sharp eye on my whereabouts, requiring a slow, gradual leave-taking before I could make my way in for the service. Upon my return, I would find her sitting on the nursery worker’s lap, being rocked back and forth and protesting any alteration to that arrangement.
This Year: This morning at church, she gave the nursery worker a baleful glare for a few minutes, but didn’t cry when I left, and by the time I arrived to pick her up after the service she was busily pushing a toy vacuum around the room.

Last Year: My New Year’s resolution was to replace all three family toothbrushes at regular, three-month intervals.
This Year: My New Year’s resolution is to replace all four family toothbrushes at regular three-month intervals.

Last Year: I was celebrating one of my favourite milestones: the Pie had just begun sitting up without support.
This Year: My daughter can pick up my copy of George and Sam from the coffee table and hand it to me, saying, "It’s Mama’s book!"

Last Year: The Pie was waking up at two-hour intervals throughout the night, starting at about 11 pm, while the Bub slept soundly.
This Year: The Bub is up once or twice a night, while the Pie sleeps soundly (except for the nights that the Bub sleeps through; in those cases, the Pie is up for an hour or two in the middle of the night, murmuring, "No, no, no!" every ten minutes or so when she discovers that she’s still awake).

Last Year: I wrote in my journal that I had discovered the Pie’s "love language": undivided attention.
This Year: I’m writing in my blog about the consequences of too-often-divided attention: when hubby brought the Pie down from her nap yesterday, she took one look at me sitting at my laptop, and buried her head in hubby’s shoulder. When I offered her a toy mop to play with, she threw it to the ground and spat out, "No!" in an unmistakably petulant tone, sneaking a peek at my face to see if her emotional manipulation was working. (It did. Observe the lack of a blog post for yesterday.)

Last Year: I still had a baby.
This Year: I have this:

Friday, December 29, 2006

Irreducible Complexity

In Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe argues that the evolutionary process cannot be completely explained by the principle of natural selection, reliant as it is on the preservation of tiny, individual changes, each of which confers a survival advantage. Natural selection works well to explain the giraffe’s neck: generation after generation, the longer-necked giraffes were able to survive by eating leaves from the tops of trees while the shorter-necked giraffes perished without passing on their genes; gradually, over thousands of years, the giraffe’s neck evolved to its current prodigious length. But what about the eye? Behe describes structures like the eye as "irreducibly complex": in order for an eye to come into existence, thousands of factors must fall into place simultaneously, and none of these factors is individually advantageous.

Before you run away, I promise I’m not going to delve into the debate on evolution vs. intelligent design; but I have been reminded of Behe’s argument lately as I worry about the difficulties the Bub may encounter when it comes time for him to learn skills that are "irreducibly complex."


The Bub is not a big fan of new information. He enjoys displaying his existing store of knowledge, but he resists any parental attempt to input new ideas. "No help!" he shouted the other night, pushing hubby’s hand away furiously. Bub was in the bath, trying to fill a watering can so he could dump the water over the Pie’s head. (She takes remarkably well to this game, blinking dazedly as the cascade of water rushes over her. The enthusiastic shouts of, "The Pie is soaked!" have clearly brainwashed her into believing this to be a fun activity.) Bub pressed down the watering can, waiting for it to fill, but the water level in the tub was a bit lower than usual, so nothing happened – the opening at the top sat high and dry, a few millimetres above water level. "Side then up!" hubby coached, but Bub was having none of his help.

In situations like that, the only strategy is to sneak the knowledge into the Bub. You can’t show or tell him how to do something – even something he is trying very hard to do. But sometimes you can trick him into solving the problem himself, get him past that barrier where your help turns into his knowledge. Five minutes later, Bub was happily soaking his sister, chanting "Side then up!" as if he had discovered the principle all by himself.

Bub’s language acquisition has occurred in much the same way, one tiny breakthrough at a time. I’ve even had some success, in the last few days, showing him how to use an Aquadoodle and a Viewmaster, activities that involve at most a two-step process before the big pay-off (look, then slide; dip, then colour). The Three Little Pigs game he got for Christmas has been less of a hit: by the time we select the right key to open the little door, Bub is wholly unwilling to be shown how to insert it in the lock and turn it in the right direction.

I feel confident that I can teach Bub anything, so long as I can break it down into small steps, sneaking the knowledge into him one tiny piece at a time, tricking him into believing in his own competence. But what about larger tasks – the kind that do not yield a sense of accomplishment until several steps can be combined successfully? What about those structures of knowledge that are irreducibly complex?

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Isn't It Ironic

In the film Stranger Than Fiction, Will Farrell is standing at a bus stop when Emma Thompson’s calm, authoritative voice rings in his ears. "Little did he know," she pronounces, "that it would lead to his imminent death." In a wonderful inversion of the usual narrator-character relationship, the novelist played by Thompson is now the one in the dark: little does she know that her confident pronouncements are audible to her character, a very real man by the name of Harold Crick – a man who is now fully aware of his coming death. His knowledge changes the meaning of his imminent death, and her ignorance becomes a point of both comic and dramatic importance (one of the funniest scenes in the movie features her reaction to an urgent phone call from the character whose death she is about to type into reality).

Stranger Than Fiction is a playful, inventive movie, one that depends entirely on our ability to keep track of who knows what. It’s an ability we take for granted, and one that is foundational to the dramatic arts. The first great plays, the Greek tragedies, rely on the tension between the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance: Oedipus roars out his anathemas against the man who has brought a curse upon Thebes by killing his father and marrying his mother, and the audience shivers, not merely because they know that he is the man, but rather because they realize that he doesn’t know that he is the man.

When I first learned the definition of dramatic irony, I was taken aback. Dramatic irony occurs, according to the Glossary of Literary Terms, when "the audience or reader shares with the author knowledge of present or future circumstances of which a character is ignorant." It seemed an oddly technical definition for a word that I associate with a sharp stab of psychological pain, like rain on your wedding day, or a free ride when you’ve already paid.

I have since come to realize that there are few things that fester like that interplay between ignorance and knowledge. When I miscarried four days after taking my first positive pregnancy test, it was inexpressibly painful to realize that the embryo had died the same day I saw the little pink line in the window. After hearing the doctor’s words, I compulsively replayed the previous four days from a God’s-eye perspective, remembering my glowing announcements with the bitter knowledge that the news I was sharing was already false. I wondered why God didn’t tell me.

The same kind of irony pertains to autism diagnoses. The parents proudly display their toddler’s accomplishments (he reads! he plays piano! he can recite whole books!) while the grave faces of the professionals hint at their unspoken diagnosis: the apparently reassuring abilities of an autistic child are often symptomatic of the disorder.

The painful irony of such scenes is rendered even more ironic by the fact that such tensions between knowledge and ignorance are precisely what autists are (supposedly) unable to comprehend. Read a few books about autism and you’ll soon come across the concept of "theory of mind." The theory of mind is what allows us to understand that the things we know may not be known to others. We watch the actor reading his newspaper while the burglar tiptoes across the stage behind him; we know instantly, effortlessly, that the newspaper-reader is unaware of the burglar’s presence in his home. Frasier Crane hides his lady friend in the bathroom and we realize that Niles doesn’t know she’s there, even when she sneaks behind his back to hide in the front hall closet.

The classic test for "theory of mind" is the Sally and Anne test: "Sally has a basket; Anne has a box. Sally has a marble. She puts it into her basket and leaves. While Sally is away, Anne removes Sally’s marble and places it in her own box. Sally returns. The child is asked, ‘Where will Sally look for her marble?’" (taken from Charlotte Moore’s George & Sam: Two Boys, One Family, and Autism). Most children know that Sally will look in her basket, the last place she saw the marble. However, autistic children almost always say that she will look in the box – they do not know how to recognize and compensate for the gap between their knowledge and Sally’s.

I’ve read about this test a few times, and I’ve always been struck by how difficult these descriptions are to read. If the test were to be performed in front of me, undoubtedly I would answer correctly, but the task of translating those words into images adds a level of complexity: I’m aware of the effort it takes to remember who saw what where.

One problem with using the theory of mind as a definition for autism is that it seems so black and white: either I understand that people have varying knowledge, desires, and tastes, or I do not. As such, the theory of mind doesn’t seem to account for the huge variations that occur along the autism spectrum, and indeed, most parents of autistic children see some evidence in them of awareness, however sporadic, of the minds of others. I wonder if autists, instead of totally lacking a theory of mind, simply find it especially challenging to keep track of who has access to what information.

After all, even neurotypical adults make mistakes. "Stop me if I’ve told you this story before," we say, uneasily aware that we can’t always remember with whom we have already shared information. We find it easier to keep track of who knows what when that knowledge is represented visually, spatially. There’s a reason it’s called dramatic irony: we need to see such dramas enacted in front of us to fully appreciate the dynamics of knowledge and ignorance. Mere verbal storytelling, like the verbal description of the Sally-Anne test, requires the reader to analyze and remember data that can be conveyed onstage in a single glance: Dora looks around, wide-eyed, and asks, "Do you see Swiper?" We know, instantly, based on her facial expression and her position on the screen (facing front, her back to the crafty fox), that she herself does not yet see Swiper. (We know that, of course, if we are accustomed to examining facial expressions, differentiating between a mischievous expression and a genuinely inquiring one.) The Greeks knew this; they built a stage, equipped actors with giant masks, took stories from myth and epic and acted them out spatially so that audiences could perceive and react cathartically to the hero’s tragic ignorance.

Even that clunky literary device, "Little did he know…" is an acknowledgement that readers need help – we need to be reminded of who knows what; we do not necessarily find it easy to keep track of characters’ knowledge when we’re forced to rely on mere words to guide us.

One of the ironies of autism is that high-functioning autists, despite their verbal difficulties, rely more heavily on verbal input than neurotypicals do, compensating for the cues they miss from body language and facial expression. It’s no wonder, really, that autists struggle to determine the difference between what Sally sees and what Anne knows. And though it’s satisfyingly dramatic to say that they have no "theory of mind," perhaps all we can mean by this is that they have even more difficulty than the rest of us in figuring out what other people are thinking.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Anatomy of the Teenage Heart

I was flipping through my grade ten diary this morning, searching for blog fodder suitable for a slow Saturday, and I came across this entry comparing my symptoms of lovesickness with those of my friend (I’ll call her Felicia). I relied heavily on italics in those days, so instead of using the blockquote feature (which puts the whole thing in italics, thus obscuring the trademark of my fifteen-year-old style), I’ll just inform you that the entry begins HERE:

*****

Felicia was in deep, deep, DEEP depression today at lunch because Bruce was talking to the girl with the black hair ("the sleaze bag"). Now I realize how ridiculous I was last year. Felicia does not agree, and never will that she is as bad as I was last year. Come on! Here are the symptoms I displayed:

  • I worried over my hair and clothes whenever I thought I would see him [Jeff, the seventeen-year-old aspiring missionary who clearly required no introduction in my diary – when the word "him" has no clear antecedent, it always refers to Jeff]. Felicia is even worse than I was that way.

  • When he ignored me I was plunged into the depths of despair. Felicia, undeniably and admittedly is too.

  • When he spoke to other girls I wanted to scratch his eyes out – or better yet, hers. ("That sleaze-bag"?)

  • I made a big deal out of all sorts of little things (i.e. any U2 song, red shoes, any expression he ever used). Felicia repeats reverently any phrase Bruce’s lips have uttered.

  • I went crazy every time he paid any attention to me. Felicia dwells lovingly on all the details. She called me last night and spent half an hour telling me how Bruce noticed her pink binder.

  • I talked about him ceaselessly. Has Felicia mentioned anything else?

  • I tried many times (unsuccessfully) to get over him. Felicia is doing all of that now.

I don’t know what to tell her. Up until now I’ve been helpful because of my experience in these matters [rejection and unrequited love – the two areas in which my experience was already quite vast, though my experience in actually interacting with boys was still basically nil]. The way I got over Jeff, or at least got over the impatience and jealousy, was by leaving the country for awhile. This is, however, impracticable in Felicia’s case. [Yes, I really said "impracticable."]

A big kitty named Mack just came in. How privileged we are to have such a marvellous beast in our home!

Duncan asked if he could borrow my liquid paper today. It was so romantic.

[end of entry]

*****

I assume, though I cannot be certain, that the final sentence was meant ironically. Duncan was my Rebound Crush, a boy in whom I cultivated an interest in order to bolster the fiction that I was over Jeff.

Reading that entry has made me curious, not for the first time, about the principles that govern the adolescent crush. In addition to the Rebound Crush, there are at least three additional sub-species:

The Boredom Crush: One of my favourite scenes in cinema is the opening sequence of My American Cousin, in which the twelve-year-old heroine lies flopped across her bed, writing in her diary with painstaking care the following words: "NOTHING. EVER. HAPPENS." That pretty much sums up my experience of adolescence, which I remember now as a constant struggle against the overwhelming uneventfulness of my life. The Boredom Crush was the best, and possibly the only way to alleviate that ever-present tedium. Ideally, the object of this crush should be elusive: there needs to be suspense – will I see him today when I walk past his locker? Will he smile if we pass each other in the halls? A distant acquaintance is better for this purpose than a total stranger, since there is the tantalizing possibility (rarely realized) of actual interaction. One of the most euphoric moments of my teenage life occurred when the mother of the best friend of my current Boredom Crush came into the fruit market where I worked and initiated a friendly chat. The following Monday, her son came up to me after French class – my Boredom Crush standing idly by – and said, "My mom met you the other day. She said you were really nice." It was several hours before I came down from the high of that excitement.

The Social Advancement Crush: A key element of the boyfriend fantasy is the social advancement that could be achieved if one could only attract the eye of the right boy. Not just any boyfriend would do; I can think of two girls who inhabited the same semi-nerdy netherworld I did who engaged in what I saw as all-too-palpable attempts to improve their social status through long and elaborately staged PDAs. The trouble was that their boyfriends were even more nerdy than they, and considerably less attractive, so the resulting spectacle was little more than a trainwreck, one of those rare occasions where the high school pecking order and the code of basic human decency were violated simultaneously. For the Social Advancement Crush to be effective, the object of one’s affections must occupy a higher echelon on the high-school hierarchy. In practice, this means that the Social Advancement Crush leads to an actual relationship only in movies like Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink (and even then, Social Advancement often conflicts with True Love, and True Love always wins).

The Real Thing: The distinguishing feature of the Real Thing (as opposed to the Rebound, Boredom, and Social Advancement Crushes) is its involuntary nature. Those other crushes can be stopped at will; when the experience becomes more painful than entertaining, it’s time to move on. With the Real Thing, one remains skewered on a pin, wriggling in pain but unable to escape. In that sense, you don’t find out that what you’re feeling is the Real Thing until it’s already too late. But what is it that separates the Real Thing from the purely utilitarian crush? Why could I pick myself up and dust myself off after being publically and humiliatingly rejected by Duncan, but still continue to pine after Jeff for years to come?

To be sure, Jeff fulfilled my criteria of desirability more fully than anyone else I met in my high-school years. The minimum standards of desirability were as follows:

  • attractive (but in a slightly geeky, non-bicep-related way): It was a matter of pride with me that I didn’t go for the broad-shouldered football-player types favoured by some of my more conventional friends. Tall, lanky, dark-haired and ever-so-slightly goth: that was my M.O.

  • smart: Not necessarily smarter than me (that narrowed the pool a little too drastically), but intellectual. Idealistic. Interested in debating the arms race, or the existence of God, or the merits of Ronald Reagan as a President.

  • well-liked: My crushes were never loners – they were unconventional, in some ways, but accepted in that way that guys had of accepting differences among themselves, so long as certain key attributes, such as heterosexuality and hockey ability, were observed.

Shyness was a plus, though not absolutely essential. I had a few half-hearted Social Advancement crushes on gregarious boys whose friendliness made them seem more attainable than they actually were, but my heart of hearts was always reserved for the quiet ones. I remember spending ten minutes in silence in the stands of the local arena, searching vainly for something to say to the quietly friendly boy with the beautiful eyebrows, who was almost certainly searching equally vainly for something to say to me. Eventually he gave up and went away – and ended up dating a talkative, outgoing, and wholly unsuitable girl who had far less in common with him than I did, while I kicked myself repeatedly for my stupidity.

Arena Boy was, for many years, the One Who Got Away. But I didn’t dedicate years of my life to mourning his loss – I reserved that for Jeff, and after reading Cinnamon Gurl’s recent post about the womanizer vs. the woman-lover, I think I may know why. The womanizer, Cin points out, "approaches seduction with a hint of deception; there is a sense of victory and triumph, like a warrior, when they are successful." Felicia’s Bruce may have been a bit of a womanizer, but I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to one: it’s too easy to scent their deceit, to glimpse the forked tongue behind their words. The woman-lover, however, is another matter: these men are irresistibly sincere in their ability to find "something attractive about pretty much every woman they meet. They are genuine and warm and enthusiastic, but also not very loyal. They are great fun, and make you feel special, because they genuinely see the special-ness of every woman." Jeff was the church-youth-group version of the woman-lover: he had a trick of giving 100% of his attention to whomever he was talking to: he would focus the whole of his intense personality on whoever had caught his interest (and that would change from week to week). His path was strewn with corpses, of which I was only one.

As Charlotte Lucas so sagely points out, "there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement." I have always considered the teenage girl to be an exception to Charlotte’s rule: a romantic fourteen-year-old requires almost no encouragement at all to become a would-be stalker. But now I’m not so sure: perhaps my irrationality was at least in part due to my luckless encounter with a tall, smart, idealistic, Christian, teenage girl-lover.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Aunt Caffern

One of the crushing things about motherhood is how commonplace it is. Anything else in life that requires even half as much effort results in accolades and recognition. Tell people that you have a Ph.D., and they often consider that to be something of an achievement; tell them that you have two children and they’re like, "Yeah, so?" (As for which of the two is harder – it’s no contest.)

For that reason, I treasure those rare moments of recognition when someone seems to really get how demanding this mothering gig really is. I can count on one hand (and vividly remember each word of) the compliments I’ve received on my parenting – a friend’s admiration of my patience with one of Bub’s meltdowns, my mother’s conviction that my attentive parenting is responsible for the giant strides he’s making in his language development. Once I get over the initial shock of disbelief, these remarks get filed in the same part of the brain where I store all the compliments hubby paid me during our courtship.

No one, however, appreciates the difficulty of parenthood more than my sister, affectionately dubbed Aunt Caffern by Bub and Pie.

Describing my sister is always a challenge. I’ve blogged about her before, attempted to capture her volcanic energy, the constant tide of words that hurtle out of her mouth, spittle flying in all directions, arms waving in huge, wild gestures to punctuate each utterance. My sister is the reason my small family feels large; she is why I am comfortable with hugs and unafraid of what it means to not be normal. And her defining trait has always been her love of children.

When she was at her vocational high school, Caffern majored in child care; she likes to tell stories about her volunteer hours at a day-care centre, where she had to line up five little ones and perform standing diaper changes on them all. Boisterous and clumsy, she is simultaneously loved and feared by most children – her energy is contagious, but she’s unpredictable: if you’re under three, you can never feel certain that she’s not going to snatch you up for an impromtu embrace.

Babysitting gigs have been hard to come by for her, so the pressure on me to produce a "future-niece-or-nephew" was, for many years, unrelenting. A few years into my first marriage, she attempted to broach the subject tactfully: "You know," she suggested in a deceptively casual tone, "You and Then-Husband might want to consider having sex sometime." Just a suggestion, you know. When I attempted to reassure her that celibacy was not the primary reason for our childless state, she appeared shocked. "I didn’t think you were the type!" she explained.

Her own family plans have always been a source of stress to my mother. For years, Caffern has had a hideous red-haired puppet named "Emily Anne," a stand-in for the daughter she planned to have when her fiance got a full-time job. Since that fiance had a brain injury and only one working limb, it seemed safe enough to go along with the plan; even when her engagement ring broke (necessating the purchase of a $20 replacement), we remained nominally supportive, right up until the day the fiance put his one working fist through her apartment wall, necessitating a hasty break-up.

Caffern is resolutely single for the time being, and her life has fallen into place in a way that at one time seemed hopelessly improbable. She has a good job, packing dinners for Meals on Wheels every morning, and she has enough good friends that when one of them (inevitably) decides to pick a fight and turn the others against her, there’s always somebody for her to fall back on, a companion for her pizza nights and trips to the mall. Once or twice a week, she comes to my place after work and takes over many of the child-care responsibilities in exchange for a good meal and a ride home: she puts the Pie down for her nap, gives her a bottle when she wakes up, feeds her supper, and then puts her down to bed. "I really couldn’t be more of a help!" she is fond of pronouncing, after detailing all her accomplishments to my mother on the phone. In response to my request, she has stopped trying to prove that the children love her more than me, content for now to be greeted by excited cries of "Aunt Caffern!" when she walks in the door. When I drop her off at the end of the day, she pronounces herself happy but exhausted.

The other day, after reiterating her plan to "be single for a very long time" (a plan that she always sticks to religiously right up until the day a new prospect crosses her path), she added a new observation. "I used to want to have kids of my own," she said, "until you had yours. Now I don’t want to have children anymore – I don’t think I could handle it. I’m tired out after handling the kids for just one afternoon, but you have to deal with them every day."

Rarely have I felt so validated.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Terrible Stories

"I heard a terrible story today," I told hubby when he got home from work yesterday.

He gave me a look. "Don’t tell me your terrible story," he warned.

I bit my lip. It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to unburden oneself by dumping terrible stories on other people. When I’m haunted by a newspaper article I wish I had never read, or an awful anecdote I wish I hadn’t heard, the urge to relay the tale to hubby is very strong.

Terrible stories have certain features in common. They involve pain and injury (not always death, mind you, though often the victim is in critical condition). They involve animals or children – or animals beloved by small children. They involve casual, sadistic cruelty – or heartbreakingly preventable accidents.

I can only assume that my reaction to terrible stories is an evolutionary response to human distress, one that has been rendered impotent and nearly obsolete by the information age. It is essential to the terrible story that it be (a) true, and (b) recent: those two factors help fuel that adrenaline surge, that frustrated desire to protect the innocent.

Terrible stories, as I’m classifying them here, are shockingly isolated events – they occur unexpectedly, disrupting the tenor of ordinary life. Certainly there are heartbreaking stories to be found in the deeply rooted social problems of our age: AIDS orphans, child prostitutes, genocidal wars. But these stories provoke a subtly different response: there are feelings of guilt and helplessness alongside the anger. One can send money; one can raise awareness; one can never feel satisfied that these responses are enough. Terrible stories, on the other hand, are paralyzing in their effects – they deal, fundamentally, with private family tragedies that are somehow quirky and sensational enough to attract gossip and/or media attention. A hundred years ago, we would have heard those stories only of our neighbours, and we would have responded by baking a casserole, attending the funeral – gathering as a community to mourn. Now, we set aside the newspaper and attempt to resume our day, haunted by the malicious grin of brutality, dismayed by our brief glimpse of that heartless jokester, Accident.

I can recall, right now, some of the terrible stories I’ve heard in the past: a cowering raccoon, a grieving older brother, a smiling toddler. I won’t tell you these stories, as much as I want to. They’ve lost their ability to haunt me, now – they’re too long ago, they’ve lost their urgency. And I, perhaps, have learned how to confine them in that mental box labeled Do Not Touch. I can lift the lid off that box, peek briefly at what’s inside, but I know how to get the lid back on again.

But why, I wonder, do we feel so compelled to tell these stories? Where does that urge come from, to regale a heavily pregnant woman with stories of stillbirth? When I acknowledge that I have a deep phobia of bees, why do people invariably respond with an anecdote about that time they stepped on a wasps’ nest?

There’s nothing I can do to fix the tragedy I read about yesterday. But for now those stabbing, uncomfortable pangs of empathy are serving their purpose: I stroked my daughter’s silky hair yesterday, noticing the curve of her neck, the plump solidity of her tummy. She cuddled in beside me on the couch, commanding "Book!" so I read to her, sharply aware of the snug way her body fits beneath the curve of my arm, the warmth of her bossy wee legs beside mine – the appallingly trusting, mortal physicality of her little self.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Rules (Toddler Edition)

(Or, Why a Ph.D. in English Literature is a Poor Preparation for Parenthood)

I’ve always been intrigued by the advice Charlotte Lucas gives Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. When she sees how reserved Jane appears in Mr. Bingley’s company, she cautions against the dangers of concealing one’s affection too thoroughly: "If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that …in nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels." Elizabeth is shocked by this advice – she objects to its insincerity but not, we should note, to its impracticality: she readily concedes that Charlotte’s policy is effective if all one desires is to secure a husband.

Charlotte is a "rules" girl – but the rules she follows are directly opposed to those advocated by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider in their best-selling collection of "Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right." Fein and Schneider’s "Rules" codify the advice my mother raised me on: don’t be too available, let him pursue you. Don’t reply to every email; if he asks you out at the last minute, say you’re busy; never be the first one to say the "l" word or the "m" word. Where Charlotte Lucas assumes that men’s vanity requires the flattery of open adoration, Fein, Schneider, and my mother insist that men will place value only on those things (women) that require a long, difficult pursuit.

It has occurred to me lately that the same might be said for children. A cursory study of English literature reveals that children place the highest value on parents who are somewhat unattainable. Orphans like Anne Shirley and Jane Eyre are full of longing for their absent parents, but parents who hover lovingly over their children get nothing but ingratitude. Look at Pip in Great Expectations: he is given endless kindness and loyalty by Joe Gargery, the brother-in-law who acts in loco parentis for him. And how does Pip thank him for all those hours of affectionate companionship and understanding? By taking him utterly for granted and then abandoning him in pursuit of the far more alluring and unattainable Estella.

J.M. Barrie puts it even more succinctly and brutally. After the children abscond to Neverland, Mrs. Darling waits patiently by the window for them to return home – or, at least, send word to reassure her of their safety – but the children, when they think of her at all, acknowledge her inevitable grief with only the briefest of pauses in their pursuit of adventure. "Everything just as it should be, you see" the narrator quips, "Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked." The equation could not be clearer: maternal altruism + childish selfishness = ingratitude and abandonment.

Keeping that in mind, I have developed my own set of "Rules" for the retention of our children’s affections. Since toddlers have about the same level of maturity as the men in Fein and Schneider’s book, and they are equally susceptible to manipulation, this policy should ensure that your children remain lovingly attached to you for years to come:

1) Never respond immediately to your children’s requests. If you wish, you may put them off with promises of "Just a second" or "Wait until mummy’s finished, honey." Then you can complete whatever task you are working on (putting dishes into the dishwasher, reading a magazine article, talking on the telephone), before turning and giving your child your full attention. This practice will not only model the good habit of seeing tasks through to completion, but it will also create in your children an inflated sense of your importance.

2) Divide your attention. Don’t make yourself too cheap: make your children compete with your attention. The ideal way to accomplish this is by having more than one child. Instead of wearying of your constant attention and praise, children will consider your time to be a scarce and valuable resource, not to be squandered lightly.

3) Learn the art of constructive ignoring. When you’re reading a book or writing a blog post, give your attention to the task so fully that your children must develop creative tactics to get what they want. This fosters problem-solving skills and language development – instead of simply tugging on your sleeve in order to get a refill of juice, they must learn to call out piteously, "Oh, I need for someone making to help me!"

4) Become an escape artist. When you notice that your children are occupied in independent play, do not tempt them to rely on you for entertainment; escape to the computer to read a quick blog, or hide in the washroom with a good book. When they get bored, let them come to you.

As Estella and Jane Bennet could testify, the key to using these tactics successfully is to give plenty of mixed signals: when your children succeed in getting your attention, lavish them with encouraging words and glances – show them that they are the centre of your universe, the most adorable and clever children in the world. This cocktail of unconditional love spiked with benign neglect should produce well-adjusted children with a realistic sense of their own importance. Right? … Right?

Edited to add: A Cautionary Note: While practising the art of constructive ignoring, do not underestimate your sixteen-month-old's ability to find, unwrap, and consume the hazelnut Lindor chocolate your husband was saving for last. I'm just saying.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Saturday, December 16, 2006

His Words

Bub: (as we set the tree skirt under the newly decorated Christmas tree) It’s a blanket! A blanket goes under the Christmas tree! Bub, do you want to lie down under the Christmas tree? Bub, do you want to lie down under the Christmas tree?

Hubby: (complying) Bub, do you want to lie down under the Christmas tree?

Bub: Okay! Time to go to bed. Pie, lie down on the blanket! Nighty night, sleep tight, don’tletthebedbugsbiteI’llseeyouinthemorning! I see a red one! (touching one of the lights) Oh, look! It’s a blue one! (handing me an ornament) Mama, make it to go right there. Mama lie down on a blanket under the Christmas tree! Mama, sing kaycee song!

Me: Kaycee song?

Bub: Okay!

Me: (trying – and failing – to figure out what "kaycee song" could possibly refer to) Do you want me to sing "Jingle Bells"?

Bub: Okay, Jingle Bells!

(I croak out a few lines before realizing that I need professional assistance and put on a jazzy version by the Barenaked Ladies. The song begins with a slow, mellow intro before bursting into the full up-tempo version on the second chorus, complete with "Batman smells, Robin laid an egg" lyrics.)

Bub: (during slow intro) Where’s song?

Me: It’s coming. You have to wait.

Bub: Wait for the song. (cuts a rug when the drums kick in) Daddy sing the song! (grabs a beaded garland that has yet to be put on the tree and drapes it around his shoulders with a mischievous smile) Hatching their wolfish plots and scheming their wolfish schemes. Wolves spilling popcorn all over the floor! (he’s quoting from the extremely scary Neil Gaiman picture book that I had vowed never to read to him, The Wolves in the Walls) Mama, make the schemes to be on? (I help arrange the garland around his shoulders) Schemes. Heh heh. Schemes.

*****

Bub’s words have become a torrent in the last few weeks, tumbling out of him haphazardly, a mix of real communication and echolalic quotations from books and songs. His language use is not exactly typical: instead of asking for things, he often supplies the question he wants us to ask ("Bub, do you want some milk?"). Often, his speech is more monologue than dialogue – he chatters away happily to himself, and I can only pick up phrases here and there. My attempts to enter the conversation are usually welcome – though every so often they are met with a stern, "Mama run away!"

Despite these worries, I’ve taken so much pleasure in this window into Bub’s slightly Alice-in-Wonderland-esque imagination, and I’ve taken even more pleasure in the evident delight with which he handles his newest linguistic tools. He has realized that the word "one" can be used to designate any unknown object ("Try this one!" "It’s a yellow one!") and that the verbs "make" and "be" can be used to fit together any sentence he wishes ("Mama, be all done!" "Daddy, make it to be on."). He is bending his intelligence to the task of solving the puzzle of language; I can’t help but feel optimistic about the results.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Treat Yourself

I’ve always been fond of scheduled indulgences. These are the little things that I plan for myself, as motivation and reward, or just as a way to make it through the day. (It’s not strictly necessary to earn a scheduled indulgence – it’s a need-based rather than a merit-based program.) In order to be effective, an indulgence must meet certain criteria: it must be pleasurable, it must be repeatable, and the attendent guilt-level must not be high enough to outweigh the overall spirit- and self-esteem-boosting effects. These criteria are harder to meet than they seem; I’ve had to experiment continually in order to perfect the formula. Right now, here are the indulgences that work – and don’t work – for me:

Category 1: Food
Food indulgences are very tempting because they do not require any investment of time. When I was studying for my comprehensive exams, my time was so wholly occupied that the only indulgences I could squeeze in were either food- or list-based: I would keep a list of all the fun activities that were scheduled to start the day after my last exam. The list provided a good outlet for all my frustrated social impulses, but it provided little immediate pay-off, so I was forced to fall back upon food. Every night, as I settled down to read a hefty stack of Victorian novels, I would grab some tortilla chips and salsa. By omitting sour cream, I kept guilt levels in check – salsa is, after all, a vegetable serving.

Short-term indulgences allow for a higher calorie-count. When I’m marking exams, I like to spend an entire day holed up in a kitchen with my T.A.s, barbequeing hamburgers and tossing back M&M’s. It’s only one day, so there’s no need to measure guilt or fat grams.

Motherhood, on the other hand, poses a challenge. It has a tendency to go on for years, so a constant supply of M&M’s may not be the best approach (not that I haven’t tried it – I went through several 1-kilogram bags last fall before I realized that even a breastfeeding mother couldn’t consume a half-cup of M&M’s every day without having to dig up those old maternity pants again).

Once I kicked my M&M’s habit, I had a burst of misplaced optimism and purchased a giant bag of Rain-blo gum-balls. The first couple of packets were good – you pop in a gumball, chew for ten seconds, then replace. After a day or two of this tactic I realized a couple of things: (1) I am not actually ten years old; and (2) in place of that rush of post-chocolate endorphins, Rain-blo gum-balls leave me nothing but a sore jaw and a disgusting row of tiny, pastel-coloured, teeth-indented choking hazards.

My scheduled indulgence of choice right now in the food category is this:


Mixed with this:


Yum.

Category 2: Fun
Like food, fun-related indulgences become more complicated when the condition you’re medicating is motherhood. My opportunities for fun usually occur in the evening, when I’m often too tired to leave the house. Meeting friends for coffee or a chick flick is enjoyable, but rare. Fun of the drinking and dancing variety is a thing of the past. Until such time as my children begin sleeping past 6 am, the fun category will be replaced by:

Category 3: Relaxation
What doesn’t work:


This was my Christmas gift from last year. In theory, it was supposed to create the comforts of the spa right in my living room, with hubby providing the requisite foot massage. The real flaw in that plan was the shoddy equipment: no matter how well you drain the foot-bath unit, there are still little reservoirs of cold water that shoot out, mid-massage, to jolt your relaxed foot back to red alert.

For real relaxation, I prefer this:


The benefits of watching reality TV cannot be over-estimated. It’s so much more than 60 minutes of viewing pleasure: it’s conversation fodder for all those girl’s nights that would otherwise be consumed by baby-talk. For years, my friendships were nurtured by the endless opportunities for analysis afforded by our romantic misadventures. Now that everyone is married and mired in baby-care, the only real alternative to repeatedly sharing our birth stories (a conversation that, admittedly, never grows old) is to debate the relative merits of Yul and Ozzy (my money’s on Yul, the only Survivor who has ever known when to shut up).

Category 4: Brainwashing
I’m sniffling and croaking my way through a miserable day today, but my spirits are high: I’ve got Survivor on deck tonight, and the Baileys is in the cupboard. I’ve even got some Pillsbury cookie dough in the fridge in case I want a fresh-baked cookie to go with my steaming mug of hot chocolate. All these things would be for naught, however, if it were not for the final category of scheduled indulgences: the ability to convince myself that I deserve such rewards. Based on my achievements so far today, I’m feeling pretty reward-worthy:

  • I threw out half a garbage-bag full of junk that had accumulated in the six months or so since the last time I went on a decluttering rampage.
  • I boiled an egg for my lunch.
  • I put together a two-page outline for the parenting course that starts next month (including a week devoted to "Time for Mom," in which I will hold forth on the benefits of a healthy diet-and-exercise regimen, sternly cautioning everyone to avoid sedentary and high-fat indulgences. Or not.).
  • I gathered up the plastic bags thrown haphazardly on the top of my fridge and placed them neatly into one large bag.

The key to this brainwashing is to ignore the fact that I didn’t mark any of the 25 essays that I will supposedly be returning on Monday, that I didn’t do any Christmas shopping or housecleaning or even child-care (having put the children into day-care this morning so that I could do the supposed essay-marking). We’ll just set those things aside for now and focus on the obscure and irrelevant housekeeping tasks I managed to identify and accomplish this morning.

Let the rewards begin!

*****

...And while we're on the topic of treating ourselves, don't forget to stop here:

Her Bad Auction

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

$$$

After a few days of crash dieting, Bridget Jones experiences an epiphany of sorts: "I have spent so many years on a diet," she realizes, "that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional ‘ideal’ is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy."

I think that money is to me what calories are to Bridget. Although nominally on a diet, Bridget happily tucks into Brie and Emmenthal cheeses, turkey curry, and the inevitable Milk Tray, washing it all down with multiple alcohol units. Since her goal (of eating nothing) is unattainable, she blithely disregards it and eats when she’s hungry, lonely, or just plain bored. Her approach to dieting is similar to my approach to budgeting: since my fixed monthly bills exceed my current monthly income, I make little or no attempt to live frugally.

"Pound wise and penny foolish," I guess you could call me. I find it easy to avoid big-ticket purchases – it’s second nature to me that certain things are simply out of bounds: big-screen TVs, hotel stays, visits to the dentist. But the pennies … they’re another matter altogether. At least once a week I shell out five bucks for a Starbucks latte; during the Christmas season I throw in a weekly festive special from Swiss Chalet (the stuffing is nearly inedible and the Lindor chocolates are not my favourite indulgence, but there’s something to be said for tradition, and in Canada nothing says Christmas like rotisserie chicken dressed up as turkey). My entertainment spending is just as bad: if I could cash in all the DVDs that clutter up my living room for their original purchase price I could probably pay for two seats on the next flight to Paris.

That is to say nothing, of course, of my book-buying addiction, or my toy-buying addiction, or the countless times I’ve paid full-price for ground beef or paper towels because I’m too lazy to compare prices at the grocery store. To be fair, I do skimp on the children as much as I can: I buy diapers in big boxes at Costco and rely extensively on hand-me-downs for clothes and toys. But still, like Bridget, I think of myself as a leaky ship, with money escaping constantly from the many gaps in my frugality and self-control.

For four out of the last six years, hubby has been in school; for two out of four of those years, I’ve been on maternity leave. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to get used to borrowing from the future. The future starts next June, when hubby is called to the bar. (I’ll believe it when I see it, though – the start-date of the future has been postponed several times already.) At that point it will be time to be a grown-up: time to work out a schedule to repay not only the student line of credit that has been our best friend for the last fourteen months, but also those debts of honour to our parents (who have ponied up tuition money), our children (to whom we plan to pony up tuition money fifteen years from now), and our as yet non-existent retirement fund.

In the meantime, it’s difficult to figure out what it means to say that I can or cannot afford something. Taking the kids to Disney World? Not an option. Spending $16.06 on The Time Traveler’s Wife so that I can get Super Saver Shipping on the Hi-5 CD I’m ordering from Amazon? Sure, why not. And if I can afford to buy hyperkinetic children’s dance-mix CDs and to add books to the already teetering pile by my bed, how can I plead poverty when some generous and creative bloggers come up with a great idea to raise money for a good cause and give out some fabulous prizes?

That at least, is my rationale for all the tickets I’ll be buying tomorrow for Her Bad Auction. It’s true that I have a serious case of lust of the eyes for this:


And especially for this:



But the real reason I’m spending my charity dollars this way (not that I follow a budget in my charity giving; see above) is that there’s something inspiring about the sheer creativity of those who have donated. All the prizes are alluring, but I am most tempted by the products of the rich imagination of the blogosphere. The auction itself is one such product, and no less inspiring than the stitched, quilted, painted, and sewn pretties that are up for bids tomorrow.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Toys

When I think back to Bub’s early infancy, what I remember most is the constant and overwhelming conviction of my own incompetence. It boggles the mind to remember how many seemingly obvious, intuitive things I had to be shown or taught. It was pure luck, for instance, that the mother-and-baby ward nurse showed me, moments before I left the hospital, how to soothe the baby by putting my finger in his mouth, fingernail down. I had read all the books, so I knew all the baby-soothing things I wasn’t allowed to do: no pacifiers, no bottles, no TV, no sleeping in the carseat, no holding or rocking, no putting the baby down, no co-sleeping, no comfort nursing, no sleeping in the stroller or swing, no letting the baby cry. I had all the no-no’s covered, we might say. But what was I actually supposed to do with the baby?

For those first few weeks, I would nurse Bub on the couch every morning and then hoist him up to be burped, holding my breath. Would he snuggle in, with his head resting on my shoulder, allowing me to gingerly transfer him to the bassinet so I could get dressed and eat breakfast? Or would his head rear up, cobalt eyes blinking wide as that panicky sensation settled into my tummy: He’s awake. What do I do now?

My sense of incompetence was wide-ranging. When a well-meaning friend loaned me a few pages of photocopied nursery rhymes, I panicked. What if I was stunting my baby’s development because I could not correctly recite "Pizza, Pickle, Pumpernickel"? Had I been doing "This Little Piggy" consistently enough to foster maximum brain development? And when, exactly, should I incorporate these activities into our day – before or after the soothing baby massage?

Another factor that was guaranteed to induce feelings of panic, guilt, and inadequacy was the Lamaze line of toys. I had received a nice basketful of baby rattles as a shower gift: I had a plush Winnie-the-Pooh bear with a teether-ring attached to it; I had a plastic blue hippo shaker and various clacky, twisty gadgets. What I lacked, however, was soft toys, and I spent many hours worrying about this lack of diversity in Bub’s tactile repertoire. When I finally found and purchased a moderately priced Lamaze peek-a-boo soft toy, the sense of relief was palpable.

A similar emotional free-fall occurred in response to the Fisher Price Peek-a-Blocks: I was pretty sure that in order to stimulate all five senses I would have to buy the whole range of blocks, but in the end I stopped after two packages. The only block Bub looked at twice was one with several little ribbon tags sticking out. For a brief period, I considered spending a small fortune on a "taggie" but then I decided that the same objective could be achieved if I simply quit cutting the tags off of his existing army of stuffed animals.

I don’t think I ever rationally believed that the key to infant care was purchasing the right brand of toys. The problem was that my rational brain was of very little use in those first dark months when sleep-deprivation and oxytocin were combining to produce a psychotic home-brew of guilt and fear. With my rational brain, I angrily rejected the bossy, manipulative rhetoric of Drs. Ezzo and Sears, only to find that their words had taken up residence, uninvited, in my psyche and had knocked out my rational brain with a one-two sucker-punch. "He’s giving up in despair," Dr. Sears murmured accusingly when Bub fell asleep after a few minutes of fussing; "If you pick him up now," Dr. Ezzo interrupted, "he’ll cry this way every day for the rest of your life."

The only way to silence those voices was by shopping. The siren song of capitalism is surely never more alluring than when you have a four-week-old baby in December and the only place to go is the mall. And not without reason: with an infant, the one true path to salvation is toys. Bub cried a lot as a baby, and almost never from pain or gas or teething – most of his cries in those days were motivated by boredom. The cure, when I was finally lucky enough to stumble upon it, cost five dollars and came from Winners: a set of hard plastic stacking cups, not dissimilar to the measuring cups that had been sitting in my kitchen cupboard all along (I had never tried plying him with measuring spoons or pots and pans; truly, I was tragically uninformed). For months on end, Bub spent his happiest hours with those stacking cups – they were easy to pack in the diaper bag, so he took them to the beach, to grandma and grandpa’s house, anywhere that he might require some handy entertainment.

I’ve been thinking about those stacking cups this week after my Christmas decorating unearthed some old photo albums. Bub seized upon one particular album with delight. "It’s the Pie!" he exclaimed delightedly, pointing a careful finger at his own chubby infant self. "No," I replied, "that’s baby Bub!" It took quite a bit of persuasion before the weight of my authority counterbalanced the evidence of his senses, but since then he has spent hours poring over the photos, gazing intently as his former self. His favourites are those in which he’s playing with his stacking cups. "Oh look!" he exclaims each time. "The baby has a toy!" His voice is awed and grateful, as if, when he looks at those photos, he sees tangible proof of how much his parents love him: We give him toys. We take his picture.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Friday, December 08, 2006

Snow Day

One of my favourite children's music CDs contains a song called "Snow Day." It's near the end of the CD, amid soothing lullabies (including a duet of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" by Chantal Kreviazuk and Raine Maida), and it comes blasting out with electric guitars screaming: "On my knees and pray (on my knees and pray!) / For a snowy day (for a snowy day!) / Cuz I need a break and I wanna sled the day away / I need a snow day! (nanananananananana) I need a snow day! (nanananananananana) Hey hey!"

That's how I've been feeling lately.

The children have some kind of bug in their system that makes them poop constantly, while affecting them in no other way, so I've been doing my usual routine of grabbing crayons wiping noses splitting up fights no pushing no hitting no grabbing I don't think your brother wants a hug right now sweetie give knife to mama peas go in your mouth not your ear coats on boots on open the door boots off coat off macaroni and cheese milk banana grapes apple not on the floor wipe off face wipe off ears wipe off hands time for bed. Only now with more poop.

And then this morning I woke up to this:


And this:


It's not quite the same as sledding the day away, but it does mean that hubby didn't go to work until noon, and that I got time to properly blow dry my hair while the children dismantled my husband's filing system with joyful cries of "Paper! Paper!" And I had a chance to put together the mid-term exam for Tuesday morning while hubby changed at least two of the daily total of 8-10 poopy diapers. So I'm counting it as a good day.

Edit: Newspapers finally got through today reporting that accumulations were up to 90 cm (or almost three feet for you Americans out there) - the biggest snowfall in more than twenty years. The photos don't really do it justice until you realize that there are several good-sized toddler yard toys completely obscured by those drifts of snow.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

A Wedding Gift

justpostdec2006

...for Mad and Jen. With my best wishes.

In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder writes about the months her family spent huddled in their house in town, burning straw for warmth and subsisting on a single loaf of bread each day, baked from coarsely ground wheat, their only food. Kept indoors by blinding, life-threatening blizzards, Laura complains about their isolation from even their closest neighbours. Ma is, reportedly, shocked. "I hope you don’t expect to depend on anybody else, Laura," she admonishes. "A body can’t do that."

It’s a strange lesson to append to a story of a tiny band of settlers, cut off from the rest of the world by snowdrifts that block the trains from getting through with supplies. Within each home, family members lean on one another, sacrifice for one another, but beyond those boundaries there is a determined avoidance of solidarity: Almanzo Wilder and his brother hoard their private store of bacon, and Charles Ingalls never hints that his family is starving when he drops by for the occasional plateful of flapjacks. All transactions outside of family boundaries must be economic ones: the free market must be allowed to operate, unfiltered by considerations of sentiment or need. Only when there is a very real danger of starvation does the town begin to work together, pooling their resources and creating a rationing system.

This is the social model Edward Said calls "filiation." In five years of graduate study, one of the most useful concepts I came across was Said’s distinction between filiative and affiliative bonds. Filiative bonds are thrust upon us: they are created by blood and proximity. Affiliation, on the other hand, refers to the relationships we choose, the ones we create for ourselves. Elementary school is a filiative environment: everyone knows everyone else, and desk location can play a key role in the forging of friendships. College, on the other hand, is an affiliative environment: social networks are loose, flexible: there is a freedom to find one’s place, to insert oneself wherever one best fits. The transition from feudal to modern societies has been, fundamentally, a transition from filiative to affiliative communities.

The blogosphere is, I suppose, the ultimate affiliative environment: freed from the constraints of geography, we can create communities based on shared interests and ideals. Such communities can transcend traditional boundaries based on race, class, and culture, but they can erect new boundaries of their own: they allow like to meet with like; they allow us to ignore personalities antagonistic to our own.

Affiliation is one of the greatest pleasures of our urban, technological age. But it has a cost, and a deep one: the loneliness, the isolation of those who fall between the cracks. The affiliative bonds fostered in our culture often focus on entertainment: people cluster around soccer fields and gaming tables, drawn together by music, or dance, or the love of a good book. These friendships can’t really replace the role once played by family: it’s not always easy to call up your tennis partner when your baby won’t stop crying and your sanity is slipping dangerously.

Churches do their best to fill the gap. Every day this month, my mother will jump into her car at 5 pm and drive for twenty minutes so that she can put in eye-drops for a member of her Bible study group, a disabled woman who has just had cataract surgery. My mother has taken on this obligation willingly, despite the attendent disruption to her supper routine, and yet I wonder why no one else in her church has stepped forward to share the load. I don't have to look far for the answer: it's for the same reason that I haven’t stepped forward - we are depleted by our jobs and families; it’s hard to perform such tasks for those not related to us by blood. Affiliation can never quite replace filiation; blood is thicker than water. But what happens to those who are cut off from their families by choice, or by geography, or by the vagaries of life? The terror of the modern age is the fate anticipated by Miranda in an episode of Sex and the City: to die alone and be eaten by cats.

Becoming a mother has made me more aware of my reliance on others: on the grandparents who babysit so I can keep a doctor’s appointment, on the husband whose arrival home at the end of the day permits a long-postponed trip to the bathroom. While friends provide a much-needed safety net of sympathy and fun, it is family members with whom one can play hand-off-the-baby – they’re the ones who can be depended upon to be interested in the variegated colours of my baby’s poops, rather than grossed-out by their diaper-busting explosiveness.

Every day, since becoming a mother, I’ve wondered how single moms cope. If I’m just barely keeping my head above water with all the support I’ve got, what happens to women who don’t have a husband to whom they can pass the baton?

For several months now, I’ve been the silent partner in an attempt to address that question. A friend with far more organizational drive than I has taken the reins of an idea we hatched together last September: a parenting-class/support-group for women referred to us by the Crisis Pregnancy Centre – mothers who have made it to the end of their "crisis pregnancy" and are now dealing with the demands of a new baby. While my friend has made countless phone calls to secure funding and create the program, I have mostly sat back and worried. How arrogant is it to assume that I can teach anyone about parenting? What is the best way to run a program hosted by a church so that it can be welcoming to women of all religious backgrounds? Do I have what it takes to do this in addition to teaching three courses and raising two toddlers?

That last one, I think, is the question that lies behind the panicky feeling I get whenever I start thinking about our first meeting in January. Because ultimately mothers need more than a free picture book or a few housekeeping tips cribbed from Flylady – we need people to catch us when we stumble, people who can do the baby-holding and poop-wiping and eye-drop-putting-in when we’re depleted from doing all that ourselves, every day. It’s like what Marcus says in About a Boy: we need a pyramid of people underneath us, each one bearing a bit of the weight. In a story that’s all about affiliation, Marcus collects people the way other boys collect rocks and bugs: his parents are divorced, and his mother is subject to suicidal bouts of depression, so he builds his sense of security on his ability to create alternate networks, "little patterns of people that wouldn’t have been possible if his mum and dad hadn’t split up."

If we can do that – if we can manage to create a few pyramids for people who need them – then I’ll feel that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile. That’s what I’m hoping for.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Frivolity

I’ve been invited to a wedding, but I don’t know yet whether I’ll go – I have to find the perfect gift for this one, and I’m still working on it.

It’s the right kind of wedding, though – a marriage of the minds in which social justice occupies the place normally held by silk dresses and tea roses, citrus sorbets and champagne flutes. In the sermon on Sunday, my pastor pointed out that Christmas celebrations and weddings are the two biggest causes of consumer debt in our society – evidence of how very far these traditions have strayed from their roots. So this wedding is a timely reminder to swim against the flow of the capitalist tide this December.

While I’m mulling over my commitment to social justice – trying to pin down exactly how I’d like to change the world – I thought I’d spend some time remembering my own weddings (the advantage of having two, after all, is that it gives me a degree of expertise in the subject).

In Father of the Bride, the wedding planner played by Martin Short claims that the first choice a bride must make is her cake – because the "kek" sets the tone for the whole wedding. This idea is not only palpably absurd, but it also flies in the face of the acknowledged expertise of countless bridal magazines that place the choosing of the cake at six months before the big day – at least a year after the dress has been ordered and a good eighteen months after the reception site has been booked.

However improbable that advice may seem, though, it rings true for me: I may not have even had a wedding the second time around were it not for my overwhelming desire for this cake:


(My bakery called it a Dr. Seuss cake, though I notice from their website that they have since renamed it the "Alice in Wonderland." It seems suitable, though, that the bakery from which I borrowed the above image calls it the "Mad Hatter.")

That cake really did set the tone for my wedding – a wedding that resisted wedding-ness all the way through. I would like to say that my anti-frou-frou stance was dictated by a rejection of consumerism, or even by a taste for elegant simplicity, but in fact I was driven by the desire to avoid reliving my first wedding, a country-club affair in which the bridesmaids wore floral-print sailor dresses with puffed sleeves while I wore an original raw-silk creation from a boutique called Victoriana. (These are the risks one takes when marrying at age 22, without having ever attended an actual wedding reception before.)

Seven years later, when I was faced once again with the task of tying the knot, I wanted this, my last wedding to bear as little resemblance as possible to my first. I was newly – very newly – divorced: indeed, there was some cause for concern that the legal i-dotting and t-crossing wouldn’t be done before the wedding. I very much wanted to be married – but the thought of actually getting married was enough to give me a panic attack. Long before the date was set, I bought a bargain-basement ivory dress, and then hung it in my closet and insisted on calling it "the garment" in a last-ditch effort to avoid thinking of myself as engaged.

I finally donned "the garment" on a Friday afternoon in late August. Instead of walking down the aisle, I walked in from the side of the church, keeping time with hubby’s steps as he entered from the opposite side. We met in the middle and exchanged our hand-written vows. Somehow, neither of us managed to make a permanent copy of our words, so we have no reliable record of what it is we committed to that day – the only part I distinctly remember was that hubby promised to put me ahead of his job, his friends, and even his hobbies (brave words from one who owns as many Warhammer figures and Magic cards as my husband).

Thirty-five friends gathered at a restaurant for the reception: we ate lobster bisque, drank strawberry daiquiries, and danced to Dexy’s Midnight Runners and U2’s cover of "Everlasting Love." The next day I was almost catatonic with terror, barely able to hold my head up as hubby spooned a few bites of orange sherbet into my mouth from our brand-new crystal sherbet bowls.

I was overwhelmed, terrified, anxious – and I had just made the best decision of my life.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Broken Things

"Oh, it’s getting too broken!" Bub announced urgently, handing me a small board book. (He’s at the stage where all his statements end with exclamation points and are preceded by an "Oh!" of surprise and amazement.)

I examined the book, expecting to find the cover ripped from its bindings or a page hanging loose. The book passed inspection, though, so I handed it back. "It’s okay," I reassured him, "It’s not broken."

Bub was unconvinced. "It’s a circle broken!" he insisted, fingering the tiny spot on the first page where the pages had become stuck together, transferring the colour to the opposite page.

Imperfections are a constant source of disappointment to Bub. He is offended by the slightly warped puzzle piece that refuses to lie flat, even though he has completed the puzzle correctly. Broken cookies are resolutely set aside; a slightly chipped goldfish cracker is deemed unsuitable for ingestion.

This trait will stand him in good stead if he ever wants a career with the Hanes Underwear company, but as Christmas approaches I find myself reminded of the value of broken things.


When Charlie Brown buys his pathetic, broken-down Christmas tree, the point Schultz is making is that his tree has value not because of its seven-foot height, its perfect conical shape, or its lush monotone greenness – his tree has value because it’s real, and its imperfections are the sign of its realness.

That insight is hard to grasp in a culture that has long since commodified realness. My real Mennonite quilt has a higher dollar value because of the pencil marks that run along the seams – proof of its authenticity, its superiority to mere mass-produced quilts. Realness has a price tag attached to it these days, and realness can also be faked: if you search for a picture of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, what you’ll find over and over again is a perfect mass-produced replica marketed by Urban Outfitters under the name "Charlie Brown Pathetic Tree." (It’s cute. I kind of want one.)

As the first Saturday in December, today is the appointed time for putting up Christmas decorations. The tree won't go up for a week or two, but today is the day for pewter Santas, plastic canvas reindeer, hand-stuffed nativity sets, and felt stockings. As I sort through all these treasured, kitschy items, I find myself appreciating the genuinely real things in my life – the broken, imperfect things whose realness hasn’t been bought or faked.

There’s my piano, hopelessly out of tune because it’s so hard to figure out when to get the tuner to come (while the baby’s napping? hmmm, maybe not). I begged for a piano when I was seven years old, but I didn’t get my wish until a pick-up truck drove through our living room, coming to rest in the back yard amid torn-up cushions from the expensive blue-velvet sofas my parents had purchased a year earlier. With the insurance money, my parents bought sensible, cheap furniture – and a new piano.

The only chair to survive the truck-going-through incident now sits in the Pie’s room, covered with an afghan knitted by my husband’s grandmother. The afghan doesn’t match the pink-and-white toile curtains, or the array of Ikea animal cards framed on the wall, and it may or may not be completely free of cat-barf, but it has provided a comfortable place for me to nurse both my children and to read bedtime stories to them each night.

My home offers plenty of examples of such worn, well-loved items, but it is at church, perhaps, that I best understand the value of broken things. My church does not have a top-notch music program; there is a tendency to rely heavily on 1980s-style Gaither choruses with piano accompaniment. It is an elderly congregation, singing with that trembling warble of the very old. There are no movie clips, no energetic worship leaders dancing up on stage. At first I thought that my church’s imperfections were something to put up with: in exchange for riveting sermons, I was willing to tolerate the occasional bellowing chorus of "Shine, Jesus, Shine."

And then one day, during communion, I saw an elderly woman struggling to lift the plastic, grape-juice-filled cup to her lips. I barely had time to register my usual former-Anglican disdain for the lack of real wine before I noticed the woman’s neighbour grasping her hand, steadying it, as she drank the few drops of liquid. In the naturalness of that spontaneous gesture I saw a purity that was real and humbling. I got a glimpse of what Henri Nouwen called "the theology of weakness": the idea that God is present in the broken, weak, imperfect things, that what we have to offer Him is not our strengths and abilities but rather (in the words of one of my least favourite Gaither choruses) our "brokenness and strife." I was reminded of Charlie Brown’s appreciation for the simple and real amid the rampant commercialization of Christmas.


A blessed Advent season to us all.

Friday, December 01, 2006

An Embarrassment of Riches

I’ve been paralyzed with indecision for the last few days because there are so many wonderful posts that I want to nominate for a November Perfect Post award.

First there is this post by Beck, who writes about terrible events with a heart-stopping simplicity. Simplicity is not a virtue that comes naturally to me, so I envy and respect it when I find it in others. Directness, restraint – an ability to cut right to the heart of a matter – I admire these things.

And the thing is, I can’t even quite make up my mind if that’s my favourite of Beck’s posts this month, because then there is also this one. I love the way the two halves of the post qualify one another. Beauty is fraudulent, deceiving, ultimately irrelevant – and yet how intoxicated we are, always, by the incredible beauty of our children!

Childhood memories have been haunting me this month – not my own, exactly, but the memories of others that overlap with mine, and the shadows they cast to those future years when my Bub and little Pie will have to navigate the pre-teen world with all its shifting tribal allegiances. Kvetch’s post on the subject of mean girls and friendship is a salutary warning, and yet it is also profoundly hopeful. (Also, it is so finely crafted that it stands in a class by itself.) Bobita’s post on the same subject is brave and honest, as all her posts are, and it reminds me of the surprising power of kindness, of the reason I value my faith and want to pass it on to my children. For my daughter, especially, I have so many fears, yet both these posts renew my faith that it’s possible for a soft answer to turn away wrath, for evil at least occasionally to be overcome with good.

So the point of this post, then, is that I suck. Nobody gets an award, nobody gets a pretty button, even though I myself am an inveterate lover of pretty buttons. But these four posts are as good as it gets; they are an apologia for the value of reading blogs. That’s all.