Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lonely Hearts Club

Did you know that you are lonely? And that blogging makes you lonelier?

That, at least, is the premise of Blogosphere: The New Political Arena, a new book in which communication-and-culture prof Michael Keren argues that blogging is "as melancholic and illusionary as Don Quixote tilting at windmills." (Actually, that makes it sound kind of fun.)

The problem, Keren claims, is twofold. First of all, blogging creates the illusion of a supportive community, but ultimately the blogger remains alone. This principle is exemplified by the plight of one blogger who lives in a cabin in the woods and writes about her cats. When one of her cats dies, "the whole blogosphere becomes crazy about the death of this cat and … she gets a community of support which is not real. These are people with nicknames who express enormous support, but they can disappear in the next minute … and she remains lonely."

Gives a whole new meaning to posting the cat, doesn’t it?

Even those of us who do not live in a cabin in the woods may still be affected by the loneliness of blogging, however. That is because our writing is motivated by the delusional conviction that we are addressing millions of eager readers. The non-celebrities among us may "end up like Father McKenzie in the Eleanor Rigby Beatles song, who is writing a sermon that no one is going to hear. Some of us are going to be embraced by the mainstream media, but the majority of us remain in the dark, remain in the loneliness."

After the recent Today Show debacle, many of us may be less than enthused about the mainstream media’s treacherous embrace. Nevertheless, it is indeed tragic that the blogosphere is preventing those who wish to sermonize to the masses from engaging in real, in-person interaction (an activity in which, I am sure, they would excel). For the rest of us, however, I would maintain that blogging is in fact capable of being combined with other forms of social interaction.

A few thoughts for Keren to keep in mind:

1) Bloggers are, by and large, introverts. There are exceptions, I know, but for the most part, bloggers are people who require and value alone-time: time to reflect, create, and re-charge. The time we spend blogging is not necessarily deducted directly from our real-world friendships: instead, we cut back on our Sudoku, our reading of People magazine, and our channel surfing. While these measures may put us at risk of becoming disconnected from pop culture, the blogosphere itself does much to alleviate that risk. If it were not for the blogosphere, I might not even know about Harry Potter’s new and disturbing six-pack, or realize that Justin Timberlake had lifted all his best moves from Bert.

2) Not everybody requires a Crystal Cathedral. I may not be a Robert Schuller or a Billy Graham, preaching to massive herds of willing converts, but I’m no Father McKenzie either. If all my regular readers were gathered into a single room (kneeling reverently before me), my congregation would compare favourably to that of many a respectable country curate. And I daresay we could throw together a delectable potluck lunch after the service. (I vote for Veronica Mitchell’s onion pie for a main course, and Beck’s cupcakes for dessert.)

3) Bloggers do not actually inhabit separate, parallel universes. We may be separated from one another by nicknames, time zones, and long-distance charges, but we have our clever ways of getting around such obstacles. We send packages in the mail. We email. We throw parties and meet for coffee and go to conferences. We do, in fact, exactly the same things that everybody does, family and friends who are no longer living in the same small village. True, we no longer bundle ourselves up in hats and scarves and pile into the cutter for a sleigh-ride followed by a taffy-pull in the kitchen, but we are real, for all that – and we are friends.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Memories

It’s no coincidence that one of the fattest categories over there on the sidebar is called "Memory Lane." I’ve always enjoyed remembering things. When as a teenager I had occasion to clean out a closet or drawer, I always lingered over the task, sifting through report cards and art projects, photo albums and birthday cards. "Taking a trip down memory lane," my mother called it, and it was one of my favourite treats.

Hubby, on the other hand, has virtually no memory of the past. His childhood memories begin at about age six, the age I was when my family moved to "the new house," thus time-stamping my multitude of previous memories as belonging to the preschool and kindergarten era. I have long claimed that my earliest memory is of my first birthday party. I’m sure that what I am remembering now is not so much the event itself as my many later recollections of it, but it is a remarkably vivid memory for all that: I can readily recall my grandfather’s shocked and delighted expression as I took my first tottering steps towards him, my father’s steadying hand poised just inches away from my right elbow.

One’s first conscious memory is considered in some quarters to be highly revealing; a psychoanalyst might observe the emphasis mine places on achievement and male approval (ouch). What interests me, however, is the mechanisms that have preserved the wealth of memories I enjoy. There are many rituals I perform – writing, most notably – with the specific intent to preserve memories. I have always been greedy, that way: I want to keep as much of my life as I can.

Equally mysterious, of course, are the processes by which we divest ourselves of memory. When I was a young child and my pregnant mother told me that I had once lived in her tummy, just like the new baby, I was delighted but bemused. It seemed unlikely that my mother would lie about such a thing, yet search as I might, I could uncover no lingering memory of that experience. I tried to imagine a warm, comforting darkness, but there was no answering echo in my memory. How could I have forgotten? How could such a significant part of my life have slipped so totally past the grasp of my conscious mind?

We never completely get used to that reality, I suppose. Freud’s theory of the uncanny suggests that the frisson of terror we feel when we hear a good ghost story arises ultimately from the reminder it provides of those hidden dimensions of our lives that lie beyond the bounds of consciousness. The goblins that break in through the basement are always our own forgotten selves, terrifying in their familiarity.

Our toddler selves are usually lost entirely to this, the most banal form of amnesia. In this article, however, researchers claim that the age at which memories begin can be influenced (surprise, surprise) by mothers. A child’s ability to form memories is fostered by "high-elaborative" communication. High-elaborative mothers discuss experiences with their children at length, asking open-ended questions, while low-elaborative mothers do little more than elicit the facts before moving on to other matters.

I am, by nature, a high-elaborative mother. I am thwarted at every turn, however, by a son who considers the past to be a closed book. "Did you go to the mall today, Bub?" I’ll ask enthusiastically. "No," he snaps – falsely – before turning his attention to the task at hand. "Did you have a grilled-cheese sandwich for lunch?" I pester in a doomed attempt to elaborate. "Okay!" he responds enthusiastically, looking around impatiently for the additional sandwich to appear.

Bub will have no memory of this part of our lives when he is an adult. He has no memory of this part of our lives now: any reference to a past event, whether it occurred yesterday, a week ago, or just this morning is met with the same combination of confusion and annoyance. It’s not just that he doesn’t know what I’m talking about: he doesn’t know why I keep talking about the mall, or about grilled-cheese sandwiches, when clearly we aren’t at the mall, and we don’t have any grilled-cheese sandwiches.

I’m too clever for him, though, too clever by half. Not content with entrusting his life to the porous mechanisms of his episodic memory, I record it meticulously and then post it on the internet, where it can never be lost and where someday, I hope, he’ll want to find it.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Adaptation

Has anyone else been watching the BBC adaptation of Jane Eyre on Masterpiece Theatre? I watched all four hours last night, having taped the previous week’s episode, and I am swooning, swooning. This adaptation struck all the right notes with me – it is suitably gothic, with its flickering candlelight and deep shadows, but also comic: Mr. Rochester’s Byronic brooding is always laced with a kind of self-mockery. Any Brontë adaptation has to strike some kind of bargain between faithfulness to the text and utter absurdity: this one manages to retain some of Rochester’s playfulness (he calls Jane "witch") while editing out the worst of Brontë’s dialogue ("in the name of all the elves in Christendom!").

The principal actors are, of course, far more beautiful than a strict adherence to the novel would permit. Blanche Ingram is positively plain, with her claims to beauty bolstered only by the absurd little rows of yellow pigtail curls on either side of her face; St. John Rivers is dull-featured and boyish, with none of the mesmerizing charisma of his literary counterpart. But for all that, Jane and Rochester are exactly as I’ve always pictured them in my disloyal imagination. On the page, Rochester is craggily unhandsome, but in the film he is almost a pretty-boy, with finely sculpted features and curly dark hair. And yet that look somehow felt right to me: Mr. Rochester, for all his black moods and rude manners, is a woman at heart. He does not don gypsy garb in this film, hiring a woman to act in his stead, but he is womanly for all that, relying on jealousy and manipulation to win Jane’s heart, sulking petulantly at the end when she speaks of her proposal from St. John Rivers. He is governed by his emotions, defined by his romantic relationships – contrary to popular belief Brontë did not need to blind him as a symbolic castration, for his attractiveness was always that of a woman in a man’s body.


If Toby Stephens is the Rochester I always imagined, rather than the one Brontë described, then Ruth Wilson's Jane is likely to be equally controversial. Charlotte and Emily Brontë argued about whether one could write a novel about an ugly heroine, and Charlotte was right only up to a point: her novel succeeds because the Jane we picture in our mind’s eye is never quite so plain as her harsh self-portrait would suggest. Wilson's Jane is small and dark, and from many angles she bears a fleeting resemblance to Charlotte as she appears in Branwell Brontë’s portrait: her face is sensitive and mobile, and watching it reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell’s claim that Charlotte herself vastly underestimated her own beauty, examining her face critically in repose and overlooking the appeal of its expression and animation.

More than her beauty, though, I was struck by Jane’s childlike vulnerability: ten-year-old Jane is portrayed by Georgie Henley (who played the role of Lucy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and the eyes of the child look out through the face of the adult: the physical resemblance between the two actors does more than add continuity: it reminds me of how much of Jane’s character remains that of a child. She is forthright and proud, innocent and unyielding. She is a true Peter Pan, a child who never grows up, wandering through the world of adult complexities with a blazing purity of heart.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed that the heroines of my favourite novels are getting younger with every passing year. The Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice had much the same effect on me: watching the film, I was vividly reminded that Kitty and Lydia are mere teenagers, part of a herd of shrieking, irresponsible girls who have been placed in the giddy position to make decisions that can ruin the rest of their lives. The film expects less of the characters than Austen did: Mrs. Bennet, Charlotte Lucas, and even Lydia are given the chance to explain and justify actions that the novel judges harshly. Mr. Bennet becomes a benevolent patriarch in the film, rather than a curmudgeon whose neglect of his daughters is subject to the same clear-eyed criticism that those daughters themselves receive. Austen holds her characters to a high standard and judges them for their failures – but she also judges those who judge, forcing Lizzy and her father to revise their hasty condemnations. The film, on the other hand, understands all and forgives all – it makes a very deliberate choice to be kinder to these characters than Austen herself was.

I am not a purist when it comes to the adaptation of text to film. The Harry Potter movies bore me because they are simply visual representations of the text: they are too faithful, adding nothing, interpreting nothing. It is in their departures from the text that good adaptations illuminate it: even when I reject the offered interpretation, I often feel I’ve come away with a better understanding of the novel. And when the novel is one I’ve read as often as Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice, that is a valuable gift indeed.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Honey and Vinegar

Most of my on-campus teaching this year is occurring at a small Roman Catholic college. Though no longer owned and run exclusively by nuns, it still retains a great deal of its character as a religious institution: important occasions are marked by a special mass, and many of the classes are still taught by the Ursuline sisters. The college’s atmosphere and mission reflect an unexpected alliance of feminism and piety: in the main lobby, for instance, the memorial to the victims of the Montreal massacre sits side-by-side this week with a display honouring the memory and example of Angela Merici, founder of the Ursuline order.

I paused by this display on my way home the other day, lured by the free coffee and chocolate-dipped biscuits. As I munched on a white-chocolate cookie, I dutifully read the bristol-board outline of Merici’s achievements. The Ursuline order was founded as an alliance of women working in the community under their own authority. During Merici’s lifetime, at least, these women were not cloistered or placed under the direct supervision of a priest: their mission was to provide education for girls, and they carried out this work by following the Rule of Angela Merici, the first Rule of religious life written by a woman for women.

"A Woman for All Ages," the display was entitled, and indeed Merici represents precisely the blend of progressive feminism and religious conservatism that characterizes the college as a whole. What caught my attention most in the display, however, was the following excerpt from Merici’s teachings: "You will achieve more with gentleness and kindness," she wrote, "than by harsh and cutting rebukes."

Good advice, I thought. Not a new idea, certainly: it has been expressed before as, "A soft answer turneth away wrath," or, more recently, "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." Nevertheless, Merici’s words have the ring of experience: you don’t carve out a newly independent role for women within a male-dominated institution without learning a bit about how to manage people.

As a dyed-in-the-wool conflict avoider, I am always in favour of honey and soft answers, and for the same pragmatic reason as Merici proclaims: they work. Overt anger, even when fully justified, gets results only within a narrow set of circumstances. Within the context of a loving and trusting relationship, anger, when used sparingly enough to be startling, can be powerful. Outside such a context, anger often becomes bullying: it may get results in the short term, but there is always a price to be paid for it.

That’s easy enough to say, of course, when it’s my rights and feelings that I’m protecting. What happens when it’s my children whose ill-treatment deserves a "harsh and cutting rebuke"? Are kindness and gentleness enough when it comes to protecting our children?

I’ve been thinking about this issue since I read Jen’s post about a stranger whose aggressive behaviour frightened her daughter. I’ve thought of it again as I’ve read this discussion of children’s aggression against one another. To what extent does our responsibility to be compassionate end when it is our children who are at stake?

As I commented in response to Jen’s post (and as Andrea points out here), our children need to know that it’s not okay for people to hit, yell at, or insult them; we have a responsibility to show them that such behaviour angers us and should anger them. The challenge, of course, is to balance this responsibility against the equally important task of demonstrating that anger is not always the best or only way to respond to ignorance and discrimination.

When my sister was in elementary school, she excelled on the track. She was a social misfit, having been moved into the General Learning Disability classroom after three years of chaos in the regular stream. For a few classes each week, she’d join her former classmates, exploding into their well-ordered classroom like a red-haired dervish of restless activity. But on track-and-field day, all that excess energy could be harnessed into a burst of pure speed. If she didn’t get distracted by waving to my mother a few yards before the finish line, she would usually place second or third, earning a blue or white ribbon and qualifying for a spot on the relay team. In eight years of elementary-school education, running was the only thing she was ever good at; these ribbons were the only award or recognition she ever received.

For two years in a row, however, the phys-ed teacher Mr. Cooper found an excuse to kick her off the relay team. She missed a practice, he claimed. (Mysteriously, she had never been notified of this practice.) She shouldn’t be on the team, he elaborated later: she might drop the baton.

My mother was angry, in that paralyzed-with-weariness way that people in my family have of being angry. She made a polite phone call, appealed to the teacher's sense of empathy. When politeness failed, she made a slightly more frosty reference to discussing the issue with the principal and/or school board. The word "discrimination" was used. Eventually, Mr. Cooper caved. I don’t know if it was the honey or the shot of vinegar, but he backed down, and my sister ran for the relay team at the regional track-and-field meet for three consecutive years.

And she never dropped the baton.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Advice

I’ve been going through the curriculum materials on routines and housekeeping in preparation for Thursday’s parenting class, and I’ve come upon the following words of advice:

  • Clean out your refrigerator each week, removing all items from their shelves. Be sure to wipe down the crispers, as well as the walls and shelves.
  • Set aside a time each day to take the children outdoors. Bundle them up in cold weather – the fresh air will help them sleep.

Does anyone actually do this? Refrigerator cleaning every week? Outdoor play every day?

Personally, I always feel like an exceptionally good mother when I get the children outside in the backyard. I do not allow this pleasant sensation to be disturbed by the fact that such outdoor play occurs only about once a month in winter (if they’re lucky). Nor do I allow my good-mother vibe to be compromised by any of the following circumstances:
  • Absence of hats, mittens, and snowpants.
  • Pushing and shoving over who gets to go down the slide.
  • Full-scale tantrum when it’s time to go back indoors.

Yesterday marked the first such backyard excursion since the arrival of snow. As I was pulling into the driveway after picking up the kids from daycare, the next-door neighbours came roaring out of their van, issuing invitations to come play. It was a beautiful crisp afternoon, still bright at five pm, so I agreed to meet our neighbours in the back yard in five minutes, thinking I’d snowsuit the kids up and then take them out through the back door.

I had reckoned without my children’s love of habit. They understood the plan to go play in the back yard, but did not see why that should interfere with their usual routine of removing all outerwear as soon as they come in the door. So off came the coats and boots, and we trooped solemnly through the house in our sock feet. When we got to the back door, coats and boots went back on, mittens were discovered to be still in the car, hats were rejected in favour of hoods, and at that point snowpants somehow seemed to be more effort than they were worth.

Decked thus in their bad-mother winter apparel (or lack thereof), brother and sister slipped and slid across the deck until they landed on the snowy path at the top of the yard, their faces aglow as they stood stock-still, clearly having no idea of what to do next. They love snow, but they’re not entirely comfortable with it. Bub, for instance, has shown a dogged determination to avoid getting snow on his boots ever since the first snowfall. Before getting into the car, he always carefully wipes his boots off on my pantleg, and if any residual flakes are still clinging to the soles he protests delicately, "Oh, it’s getting too wet all over the car!" (It’s nice that he’s so protective of the upholstery, though I wish he’d apply the same fastidiousness to my clothing!)

So it took a bit of persuasion for him to venture off the path. I got him warmed up with a few foot-stamping exercises, and then our yard was invaded by the 5- and 7-year-old neighbours who hooted and hollered and improvised games of soccer and tag. My children stumbled enthusiastically into the fray (with Bub even throwing out a few verbal greetings: "Where are you going?" "Ready, set, go!" "One-two-three-four – good job!"). It was nearly dark before I finally persuaded them to say goodbye and return to the house.

I thought I had actually done it – an outdoor play session without the ceremonial closing tantrum ritual – but as soon as we stepped through the door a comedy of errors ensued. With Bub’s first step onto the kitchen floor, his feet flew out from under him and he crashed to the floor. I tried to lift the Pie over his prone body so I could get inside to help him up, but misjudged the distance, placing her booted feet on his tummy (I figured out my error when his sobs of pain turned into howls of protest). When I finally got her over Bub’s still-howling self, it was her turn to go belly-up: her boots hit the floor and slid out from under her in one smooth motion, planting her squarely on her bum beside her brother. So I plucked the boots off of both howling children, fielded their horrified shrieks of, "Socks getting wet" as they tramped through the puddles into the living room; I grabbed some extra socks and pulled them over Bub’s toes (heeding his warning to "put socks on more carefully, Mama!"), then grabbed Pie’s reddened fingers and rubbed the warmth back into them. And then, at last, we were warm and cozy enough for me to say, "That was fun playing outside in the backyard, wasn’t it!"

It was. But I don’t plan on doing it every day.

Monday, January 22, 2007

High Maintenance

Harry: There are two kinds of women: high maintenance and low maintenance.
Sally: Which one am I?
Harry: You're the worst kind. You're high maintenance but you think you're low maintenance.
Sally: I don't see that.
Harry: You don't see that? "Waiter, I'll begin with the house salad, but I don't want the regular dressing. I'll have the balsamic vinegar and oil, but on the side, and then the salmon with the mustard sauce, but I want the mustard sauce on the side." ‘On the side’ is a very big thing for you.
Sally: Well, I just want it the way I want it.
Harry: I know, high maintenance.

When hubby and I were dating, we occasionally visited restaurants where fruit-flavoured candies were provided in lieu of after-dinner mints. When the bill arrived, hubby would offer me my choice of candies. If there was a purple one, I selected it; otherwise I opted for cherry or lemon, with watermelon and apple coming considerably further down the list. Initially I assumed that these gestures were motivated by chivalry, but eventually he explained his rationale: in matters like these, he rarely has a strong preference: Table or booth? Dining room or patio? Chocolate brownie or apple crumble? Usually, he can go either way; but when asked, I always state a preference.

I’d like to think that this was not simply his polite way of calling me a bitch. If I do not get my first choice, I am usually able to accept second-best without sulking or raging. (When I’m well-rested, that is, and when second-best does not involve something truly unacceptable, like bees or brussels sprouts.) But it’s true that I usually know instantly and effortlessly what I want in any given situation, from the trivial to the significant. And if asked, I will share that information. Indeed, I find it frustrating when people refuse to choose an option. "Oh, whatever you decide is fine," they mumble, while I inwardly seethe, Come on, just pick something already!

The Pie is her mother’s daughter in this respect. A friend was asking me yesterday if I considered her strong-willed. Strong-willed doesn’t seem like the right word to me. Pie is basically cheerful and flexible – she is responsive to suggestion, willing to leave her rubber ducky behind in favour of a towel and some lotion at the end of her bath (whereas Bub at that age always ended his bath with the ritualistic knock-down-drag-out screaming fit). When a situation does not pan out as she intended, she is adaptable. This morning she was playing with some rubber balls (the kind you get for 25 cents from those giant gumball machines at Old Navy), trying to hold as many as she could using all four limbs. Inevitably, one ball would escape her grasp and then, in an effort to catch it, she’d let two more slip. But instead of throwing herself to the floor and sobbing (as Bub – or I – might have done), she simply adapted her game: after a few thwarted attempts at ball-recovery, she decided to throw the remaining balls after the errant one. She didn’t even mind (much) when Bub corralled a few of the escapees and started bouncing them himself.

Pie isn’t as stubborn or determined as her brother, but she is supremely aware of her own mind. Though not a picky eater, she’s always attentive to what she’s in the mood for: the apple that delights her at lunchtime is likely to be rejected with scorn at supper. When offered an orange instead, she’ll catch herself in the mid-refusal and give a sharp, satisfied nod as if to say, "Yes, as it turns out, an orange is exactly what I would like."

She is equally attentive to the fine gradations of her emotional barometer. Having discovered the comfort a soft animal can provide, Pie has clearly concluded that where one is good, four are better. Thus, anyone can gauge her mood simply by doing a quick stuffed-animal count: one tightly clutched kitty registers a reading of Slightly Uneasy; two stuffed animals can be translated as "Mommy don’t leave!" and a full load of four (Kitty and Lion tucked under each arm, Duckie and Elephant clutched tightly in her hands) suggests that she has just emerged from a sleepless night and that Emergency Napping Measures are required.

The Soother Addiction is nursed with similar dedication: when hurt or stressed, she demands her fix, inhaling deeply as she pops the pacifier in. When confronted with the full roster of soothers lined up on her dresser, she hesitates briefly, then selects her favourite colour: usually orange, occasionally purple. In her crib, she gives each one an experimental suck before settling on her favourite.

Despite her considerable verbal dexterity, Pie has not yet reached the stage of ordering her own food at a restaurant. She does, however, imperiously demand the filling from my Quizno’s sandwich each Sunday. She’ll turn down chicken if it’s served plain, preferring her meat to be spiced up with mustard, mayonnaise, or spicy Tuscan sauce. It’s only a matter of time, I suppose, before she begins demanding the mustard on the side.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

His Words (Redux)

Bub had his first telephone conversation yesterday. He has long been a fan of the telephones, holding them upside-down to his ear and saying, "Hello? Hello? I called you up to say hello!" (at which point I may or may not chime in with, "I said hello. Can you hear me Joe?"). He prefers, however, to use a disconnected phone, one he can carry around without dealing with all that distracting noise in his ear. When confronted with an actual caller, he has steadfastly refused all our pleas to say, "Hello Grandma!" confining himself instead to smiling shyly before handing back the receiver.

So it was a bit of a breakthrough yesterday when he had the following conversation with my mother:

Grandma: Hello [Bub]! How are you today?
Bub: It’s a telephone!
Grandma: It’s snowy outside. Do you like the snow?
Bub: [pause, looking around for inspiration] Kitty. Computer. Book.
Grandma: Are you going to play outside?
Bub: A flower.
Grandma: That sounds like fun, playing outside with a flower!
Bub: I’m fine. How are you?
Grandma: Fine, thank you!
Bub: [hesitates] It’s a telephone!

Note the lack of responsiveness on both sides of the conversation. While not actually answering any of my mother’s questions, Bub clearly understood that a response was expected, and so cast about for a random noun to throw into the conversational mix. (Sadly, this strategy is not all that far from the way I attempt to make small talk.) Labelling objects and reciting memorized dialogue are the safest, easiest recourses for him: he seems all too aware that conversation is a kind of test that he might fail, so he falls back on these familiar strategies for comfort.

Nevertheless, this telephone conversation is a step forward, and one of many. I am most often reminded of Bub’s language development when we return to a favourite book after a few months’ hiatus. Last night we read Go, Dog. Go!, a book that had been set aside for awhile, by mutual consent, in favour of more plot-based stories like George Shrinks and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. When we first introduced Bub to Go, Dog. Go! last June, he approached it the same way he approached all books: as a memorization task, enlivened in this case by the presence of his two favourite things, dogs and cars. Once he had the text fully memorized, he lost interest, and when we returned to the book in the fall, I was delighted to note that he was responding to it on a new level: he now understood the words – down, up, over, under: these were familiar concepts now and I could sense his excitement in solving the puzzle of this book in a new way.

When we read the book last night, he had, once again, reached a new level of response. "What is he doing?" Bub asked, pointing to the dogs on the boat in the water.

"Playing a banjo," I responded, "and playing a game of checkers!"

Bub pointed again, to the dog with the lollipop. "What is he doing?"

"Oh! He has a lollipop!"

Bub nodded sagely. "A lawipop," he murmured, filing the word away for future use. "What" questions are not entirely new for him, but there is a new naturalness to the way he uses them. And his curiosity is new – for so long, it seemed that he viewed the world in black and white, a kind of indistinguishable blur marked only by a few vividly coloured objects that corresonded to words he knew: Doggy! Ball! Hamendocker! Bub could have been the poster child for the post-structuralist linguistic theory that language is what allows us to perceive the world: it seemed as if he could see only those objects that he could name, evincing no recognition of, much less curiosity about, objects or experiences that slipped through the gaping holes in his linguistic filter.

In a period of months, the grid has tightened up enough that lollipops and banjos are no longer slipping through. And he’s starting to place these objects in a motivational context. When we got to the page where the dogs hop out of bed to race to their cars, Bub commented editorially, "They’re going to the party – the big dog party!" He has never yet asked or answered a "Why?" question, but he is able to interpret actions in terms of their outcomes and even, it seems, to impute motivations. He can remember the end of the story and use it to interpret events at the beginning. And as I remember the beginning of his story of language acquisition, I project forward to the end: We’re on our way to the party – the big words party.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Would Hate to Have Your Job

"You think I just lie around all morning, but really I’m awesome!" I called out as hubby stepped through the door, bringing the kids back home from their Saturday-morning playgroup with their tummies full of Happy-Meal goodness. My declaration of awesomeness was prompted by the fact that during their absence I had

  • dusted, vacuumed, swept, and mopped the entire house
  • initiated two loads of laundry (still in progress)
  • picked up several of hubby’s ties from various locations around the house and put them in the tie drawer
  • found three outdated phone books on hubby’s desk and relocated them to the recycling
  • filled a garbage bag with junk including a broken iron, a hand-painted green-and-yellow kleenex-box cover, an empty box of clementines, and an empty Turtles canister
  • done all of the above while pausing only briefly to read two blogs and one email from a blogger-friend.

Very impressive, wouldn’t you say?

*****

My parenting-class/support-group for single moms is all set to go on Thursday, which means it’s almost time for my friend (you may remember her as Felicia) to hand over the reins to me. For several months now she has been a dynamo of activity, arranging funding from the Crisis Pregnancy Centre and from her church, locating volunteers, and working out all the details: she’s got two women committed to providing child-care each week, another one who will do the set-up and tear-down, and legions of other volunteers who all envision themselves taking over the ministry and reshaping it to suit their own vision. It has been very much a case of too many generals and not enough troops, and yet somehow she has managed to sculpt from all these competing ideas and egos and workable schedule. Three wonderful woman are going to run a cooking class at the end of each month, sharing ideas of how to turn a pot of chile in to a series of burritos and taco salads, or how to roast a chicken with mashed potatoes and a side of veg (I expect to learn a lot from these classes). Another woman will be doing a crafting activity during the class on "me-time," and every week I will be attempting to engage the attention of five very-pregnant or recently postpartum teenagers as I hold forth on such fascinating topics as housecleaning, laundry, bookkeeping, and baby care. My awesomeness notwithstanding (see above), I am somewhat daunted.

Not nearly as daunted, however, as I would have been had I been unfortunate enough to have Felicia’s job. The phone calls alone would have killed me – the task of wrangling that many opinionated and occasionally touchy human beings makes me feel slightly dizzy and ill. Felicia views my job with equal trepidation: for several weeks she tried to make sense of the curriculum materials before handing them over to me – the task of organizing that much information into a twelve-week schedule was overwhelming to her, just as the task of organizing that many people would have been overwhelming to me. Throughout this process, both of us have been looking at one another gratefully and saying, "I’m so glad I don’t have your job."

It’s not the first time, of course, that I’ve been grateful not to be in somebody else’s shoes. One of the perks of my job at the university is that I often receive free desk copies of textbooks and anthologies. Occasionally that creates storage problems (I have at least fifteen grammar handbooks, only one of which I actually use), but I’m never one to turn down a free book: an anthology of children’s literature or a critical edition of Pride and Prejudice is always a welcome edition to my library. The down side of this particular perk, however, is the publishers’ representatives who roam the halls of the English department, hoping to buttonhole professors and talk them into adopting a new text. I try to be nice to these people, but really I just wish they would go away. And I’m uneasily aware that this is one of those jobs for people with English degrees they don’t know what to do with. There but for the grace of God go I.

I don’t waste a lot of time feeling grateful that I am not a police officer or firefighter – had I been captured by aliens and brainwashed into pursuing one of these careers, I could count on the authorities to prevent me from entering a field where I would so clearly be a danger to myself and others. It’s the roads only narrowly not taken that make me most grateful: in a parallel universe, I might have ended up as a kindergarten teacher or a home day-care provider, a publisher’s rep or a non-profit manager. When I consider such parallel destinies, I become grateful for my job, with its 4:1 ratio of alone time to classroom time, a job that allows me to read for a living (and even occasionally write) and never demands that I sell anything to anyone.

What is your road not taken? What are the jobs you’re really glad you don’t have?

Just Post Jan 2007

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Okay

One of the most useful relationship manuals I’ve read is John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Gottman received a lot of media attention several years ago for claiming to accurately predict whether a couple will divorce based on a single recorded conversation. What he looks for in these conversations is "repair attempts": olive branches thrown out in the midst of an argument. A repair attempt might be an apology or concession, but most of the time it’s a simple tension-breaker: a goofy smile or a lame joke. The key to predicting marital happiness is not to measure the number of fights or even the couple’s skill at "active listening" – rather, what matters is the willingness of both partners to respond to one another’s repair attempts, to accept an apology or laugh at a pathetic attempt at humour. A repair attempt does not necessarily end the fight; rather, it allows the conversation to continue without escalating into a shouting match – it reestablishes a foundation of trust and fondness and makes the conversation a safe place to honestly explore conflict.

Watching my children play together, I’m amazed at their skill in employing repair attempts. They fight over a stuffed animal, tugging it this way and that, and amid the pushing, shoving, and shouting I search for a way to intervene. As I hesitate, though, the children often discover their own way to resolve the conflict: the Pie gains control of the pink kitty, but then uses it to "get" Bub, jabbing it at his chest. He grins and runs away, beckoning her to chase, and the game is on. They are astonishingly skilled at finding ways of turning a fight into a game, of capitalizing on that moment when a passionate wrestling match suddenly turns into fun. Often the Pie spies the opportunity first and signals it with a giggle or a smile, and I can see the struggle as Bub dithers between anger and cooperation. The temptation to play is powerful, though, and usually wins out over his desire for control and domination.

That moment of relenting, of accepting the olive branch, is highlighted in one of Bub’s favourite new picture books, Baby Says. This isn’t a book I would have chosen for him – it’s hardly a vocabulary expander, as the text consists almost entirely of three phrases: "Uh oh" (as the baby seeks his older brother’s attention by dropping, throwing, or hitting out with his teddy bear); "No no" (uttered in tones varying from affectionate reproof to outright anger); and "Okay." The "okay" is given in response to the baby’s innocently skilful repair attempts – he bashes his brother over the head with his bear, or throws it at his brother’s meticulously built block tower, but then flashes a winning smile, or leans into his brother’s angry face to plant a kiss on his nose.

The simplicity of the language means that most of the story is told through the vividly depicted facial expressions of the characters. The drama is so basic – mischief, reproof, forgiveness – that it’s adaptable to almost any situation. This morning as the Pie attempted to steal her brother’s hat, Bub responded by quoting the book’s dialogue: "No no!" he shouted, but then patted his sister on the head: "Okay, baby. Okay."

It’s the most basic and yet the most essential of relationship skills: the ability to stand down, to relent, to give up the energy boost provided by our anger and instead to reestablish contact with those we love. Funny how our adult ability to describe and analyze it doesn’t make it any easier to do.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Of Tea Cups and Hockey Sticks

Before I discovered blogging, I discovered these books: Andie Buchanan’s anthologies on raising boys and girls. It’s a Boy was an instant favourite: in it I found funny, insightful analyses of the strange adventure of rearing a boy. Like me, many of the contributors had initially felt stunned by the ultrasound photos that revealed the boy equipment – How did that get in me? they wondered. What do I do with a boy? For me, as for many of the essayists, having a boy has been a journey into an unknown land – I grew up with a sister, so boys were creatures I admired from afar, measuring them against the ideal represented by Fred Savage, with his cute round face and scrunchy eyes. The Bub has changed all that: the twelve-year-old hoodlums whose food-court antics scared me while I was pregnant no longer seem quite so alien now – in boys I no longer see stereotypical aggression and competitiveness, but instead a kind of stunning vulnerability. Since having the Bub, I’ve become protective of small boys, of their innocent emotions and sweetly open hearts.

When the Pie was born, I was eager to purchase the companion volume to that anthology. It’s a Girl came out in time for Mother’s Day, and all I have to say about that is that when your wife asks for a motherhood-related item for Mother’s Day, do not wait until the day before to make the purchase. And if the bookstore is sold out, do not place an online order that is due to be delivered in six weeks. I’m just saying. When I finally got my hands on my belated gift, I anticipated the same mix of introspection and self-discovery that I had found in the first volume. Instead, what I found was essay after essay on the writers’ discomfort with the tyranny of such Agents of Oppression as dresses, dolls, and the colour pink. I was disappointed – and irritated.

I have always been a girly girl – more Anne Shirley than Jo March. Anne was an empowering role model for me because she was smart, ambitious, competitive – and she longed desperately for puffed sleeves. I longed desperately for puffed sleeves throughout most of my childhood and adolescence (hence my lack of high-school coolness) – a banner day for me was the acquisition of a brown floral dress with gold buttons and long puffed sleeves, to be worn with a Laura Ashley lace collar. I wore it in my high-school production of Nicholas Nickleby, playing the role of Madeleine, Nicholas’s heart’s desire, a part I secured due to my ability to sob convincingly on cue.

Such lacy window-dressing aside, though, I kept pace with Anne in the ambition and competitiveness categories: I sent the boys packing in my math and chemistry classes, and I considered my choice of career to be a simple matter of determining which avenue I would tread on my path to barrier-breaking fame and fortune.

As a grown-up, I’ve toned down my taste for florals and lace. If I were to watch the retro TV channel I’d be more likely to pick an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than Road to Avonlea. At the same time, I’ve abandoned some of the feminist ideals that my teenage self clung to so tenaciously: my decisions are guided not simply by my individual ambitions but rather by what is best for my family. I’m firmly on the mommy-track, for better or for worse, and the Linda Hirshmans of the world are unlikely to consider my interest in Battlestar Galactica a mitigating factor in this betrayal of the feminist cause.

I am still a feminist, of course – but in my life there has been no straightforward, predictable inverse relationship between femininity and feminism. All of which is to say that a strict avoidance of the colour pink does not guarantee that one will escape one’s gender role; a predilection for tea parties does not necessarily place an "Oppress Me" sticker on one’s back.

This point is made far more eloquently in Mad’s recent, gorgeous post on the truly mad tea party her daughter has been hosting lately. One look at her daughter’s face should convince you that tea parties are, in fact, the ultimate expression of the will to power. The capacity of little girls to play with dolls, tea sets, and giant plastic kitchens never fails to startle me; it is awe-inspiring. I have a son who is just starting to develop the capacity for pretend play (a capacity nurtured, to a great extent, by his sister who is a natural virtuoso in the art). His cars and trucks offer only a limited scope for this type of play: he can manoeuvre them up and down a ramp, but they offer nothing like the complex variations possible with a few dolls and some cups and saucers. Pour, serve, drink, share – the permutations are endless and absorbing. There is scope for the imagination here, as Anne would say, and when Bub pulls out a plastic jug and serves up a cup of juice to his sister, I watch with amazed and grateful eyes.


The Pie does her share of driving choo choo trains and riding hobby horses – she kicks a ball with panache, and her favourite book is ABC of Canada because "H" stands for hockey. But her affinity for these boyish toys is far less valuable to me than the adeptness both of my children are developing for the truly challenging world of girl toys. At some point in the future, I might celebrate my daughter’s interest in hockey or her pursuit of a career in engineering. But for now, it is Bub’s initiation into the world of dolls and tea-cups that delights and encourages me, and fills me with hope.

Monday, January 15, 2007

What is Love? (Baby Don't Hurt Me)

A Perfect Post – January 2007

When Bub was nine months old, I spent several weeks anxiously asking myself, "How do I know that I love my baby?" To be sure, hormones were a factor in this mental state: I was in the process of weaning, and a decrease in the milk supply always wreaks havoc with my emotions. By the time Bub was fully weaned, the doubts and fears that had driven my inner debate had magically melted away. But I’m not certain that my feelings (or lack thereof) were purely a chemical reaction to a temporary hormonal imbalance. There is something profoundly strange about the way we love our babies.

Loving a baby is not, for instance, much like loving a grown-up. Key symptoms of romantic love are an overwhelming desire for the beloved’s presence and a sense of euphoria when the loved one is near. There are women, I know, who feel this way about their babies. But I did not: what I felt, far more often, was an overwhelming desire to escape, even for a few minutes, from my baby’s constant presence. "How can I miss you if you won’t go away?" I used to quip. I was only partly joking.

I have always loved holding babies, loved the feeling of lassitude and contentment that would sweep over me when someone else’s baby fell asleep in my arms. Having my own babies has pretty much cured me of that. My arms are stronger now than they were, but my wrists still remember the abuse they endured when the Bub was a fifteen-pound ten-week-old demanding to be bounced during his every waking hour. My shoulders have a long memory, too: I can recall the curious, weightless sensation of returning to work for the first time, clacking across campus in wedge-heeled sandals, a tasteful purse occupying the shoulder that was usually weighed down by an overflowing diaper bag. It was a pleasant sensation, familiar, free.

If loving our babies is not about euphoria, it is equally distant from that second measure of love: enjoyment of the beloved’s personality. Words are what fuel my adult relationships: my love is never fully separable from the affection I feel for my friends’ humour and intelligence, their insights and their quirks. Rarely do I feel more loved in return than when my close friends laugh at my own verbal quirks: my tendency to refer to furniture items by their Ikea names, or my habit of placing undue emphasis on the first syllable of any proper name: Swiss Chalet, Loblaws Superstore, New York Fries.

Babies are, undeniably, poor conversationalists. But more than that, their personalities are so rudimentary, so unformed. We find out quickly about our babies’ temperaments: we learn that our babies are intense and negative in mood (for example), and then try to convince ourselves that they are far more interesting than the blank, lumpen infants yawning placidly in their carriers. Their real personalities don’t truly emerge until months later. How do I know that I love my baby, I asked myself back then, when I don’t even know if I like him yet?

When debating the meaning of love, I always think of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, a children’s novel set in a futuristic dystopia where emotion has been eliminated. Families have been replaced by temporary nurturing arrangements that are dissolved when the children turn eighteen and the parents move to the Residence for Childless Adults. At a pivotal point in the novel, Jonas (the protagonist) asks his parents, "Do you love me?" and they respond by correcting his imprecise use of language, proposing more accurate alternatives: "You could ask, ‘do you enjoy me?’ The answer is ‘Yes,’" his mother suggests. His father offers his own substitution, suggesting that Jonas ask, "‘Do you take pride in my accomplishments?’ And the answer is wholeheartedly ‘Yes.’"

This is meant to be a devastating moment, a revelation of how impoverished this society is, despite its surface pleasantness. Every time I read the novel, though, I become less convinced that "love" is better than the kind of support Jonas’s parents describe. I was married, once, to a man who claimed to love me but didn’t like me very much, who frequently verbalized his wish that I were athletic, outdoorsy, and housewifely, though I had never shown the slightest inclination or aptitude for any of these things. Likewise, a friend of my mother’s used to complain that she wished her daughter were more like me (read: more like her): bookish, studious, high-achieving. Her daughter was depressingly normal: pretty, popular, more interested in hanging out at the mall than excelling in school. I’m sure that this woman loved her daughter very much: but if she didn’t enjoy her, or take pride in her accomplishments, how much was that love worth?

As my children have grown older, I’ve been able to relax into the love I have for them. There are moments, now, when I’m flooded with love for my children. Sometimes that love feels like joy or contentment; at other times, it feels like a punch in the gut. My favourite moments, though, are the ones when I am struck by how much I like them – when I see Bub’s brow knit in concentration as he works on a puzzle, or witness the way the Pie self-medicates her hurts with the toddler equivalent of a tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a chick flick (barking out orders through her tears: "up! kitty! book! cookie!"). I love his precision, and her exuberance, the glimpses of real personality beginning to emerge from their generic toddler traits – glimpses that make me look at my children in surprise and delight and say, "Oh! It’s you!"

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Two Memories

I was looking down at the Pie today as she stood by the kitchen cupboards, the countertop looming overhead, and I remembered how my mother used to tower over me when I was a small child. I was always impressed by her height, and admiring of the power it conferred, but I never envied her – I knew, even then, that I preferred my own trim, compact body, with its childlike solidity and breadth. As I prefer the Pie’s, now – it is round, and strong, and she wields it with a kind of careless confidence as if she, too, understands how perfect she is.


*****

As I was plucking an eyelash out of my eye the other night, I suddenly remembered my first attempt to tell a joke. I would have been about four years old: too young to have friends of my own, but old enough to be left at a birthday party and picked up an hour or two later.

I was a shy little girl, so I clung to the birthday-girl’s mother in the kitchen while the other children were, presumably, playing happily elsewhere. By way of conversation, I thought I would pass along this funny joke:

A: I’ve got something in my eye.
B: What is it?
A: My eyeball!

In retrospect, I’m proud of my debut joke-selection – it was short, easy-to-remember, and far more amusing than the various knock-knock jokes that became a staple of my elementary-school years. So I launched into my joke, looking up at Mrs. W. and saying gravely, "I’ve got something in my eye."

"Oh dear!" she murmured sympathetically. "That’s uncomfortable isn’t it?"

I paused, startled by this break from the expected script and vaguely uncomfortable with having solicited sympathy I wasn’t entitled to. "It’s my EYEBALL!" I blurted out, and then fled.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Please Disable Your Cloaking Devices

Since it’s all about the meta-blogging for me this week, I thought I’d jump on the National De-Lurking Week bandwagon (even though, as Dani has pointed out, "national" is a bit of a misnomer: apparently it’s not just us Canadians participating).

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen people pleading for their lurkers to emerge from the shadows. Every day, we bloggers click on SiteMeter only to see the same mixed bag of locations and referrals. Who is that person from Sheffield, England who keeps visiting? (Is that you Idle Person?) What about that regular reader from Milner Ridge, Manitoba? So we send our pleas out into the ether and then sit back and listen to the deafening silence. The fact is, lurking is one of the inalienable rights conferred by the Internet. We all do it: I’ve lurked at some autism blogs, some daddy blogs, and most of the big-time mommy-blogs, and for one reason or another I’ve never poked my head up to say hello.

But De-Lurking Week appears to be different. I’ve been checking, and it seems that people are actually responding! Perhaps it’s the mixture of peer pressure (the national/international moniker) and out-and-out threats:


In any case, I thought I’d try to sweeten the deal a little bit and tempt some lurkers forward with some attention-grabbing questions. People love to talk about themselves, right? (Or is that just bloggers?) The trick is to settle upon the right questions – not too nosy (What are the names of your children?), not too self-obsessed (What’s your favourite thing about me?), and not just plain inappropriate (Which of my children do you think is cuter?). So here are my questions – answer one, or all, or none, as you feel inclined, but do say hello – I’d love to hear from you!

1) Which is better – The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter?
2) Who would you be more likely to be attracted to: the bad boy (think Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver) or the nice guy (think Colin Firth in a reindeer sweater)?
3) If you’re a mom, how do you tend to greet your children’s milestones: with a nostalgic "What happened to my baby?" or an exultant "Yeah! Bring it on!"
4) What are the biggest "don'ts" when it comes to helping a first-time mom?
5) What, if anything, would you like to ask me? (I have no boundaries; I’ll almost certainly answer.)

And hey, regular commenters – you can play too.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A Just Post

justpostdec2006

It’s time to celebrate the first monthly anniversary of the wedding that brought together Mad and Jen, united in their commitment to a just world. It’s appropriate, I suppose, that my nominee for this month’s Just Post is a woman I met once, at a friend’s wedding eight years ago. Becky was standing behind me in the buffet line, and she was easy to talk to: she had just started dating the groom’s brother, and she was simply radiant with the knowledge that she’d found the Real Thing. She and Keith hadn’t been dating long but, as she explained, "You really get to know a person well when you live next door!" I’ve always remembered that conversation for the sake of that blazing certainty of hers. (I was in love too, at that time, but hesitant, terrified, doubtful – Becky was like a visible incarnation of the happiness I was scared to admit I was feeling.)

When Becky first left a comment on my blog a few months ago, I was thrilled to see that she and Keith had lived happily ever after, despite their sad exile from such Canadian delicacies as Swiss Chalet, Crispy Crunch, and Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale. She has a little boy with a heart-stopping crop of curly hair, and she has an amazing scientific mind, which makes these two posts as persuasive as they are amusing.

You have to enjoy a post that’s been commissioned personally by Al Gore – and includes references to the Grinch. Becky is fun like that. And in her follow-up post, she includes a hilarious, pointed comic strip. Reading about climate change has never been so much fun!

Becky writes about climate change from her perspective as a scientist; I think about the issue more sentimentally, perhaps. As much as I’m aware of the vastness of this problem, nothing brought it home for me more than an email I read recently about rising ocean levels and the threat they pose to Maritime provinces like P.E.I.

A world without this?


We’re short on easy solutions here; but educating ourselves is a start.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blogging-About-Blogging AND a Meme (All at the Same Time!)

1. Do you like the look and the contents of your blog?
My blog is a lot like my house: although I admire clean lines and subdued tones, I just can’t stop myself from adding bright, colourful stuff. (My taste in colours basically stopped developing when I turned five – lots of splashy reds and yellows.) I don’t always like the clutter, but there’s not much point in going all Flylady on my blog, because I know I’ll just find more flashy buttons to add later.
(I do love my banner, though.)

2-Does your family know about your blog?
They do, but they don’t read it (due to a lack of computer access and/or reading skills). I haven’t mentioned it to the in-laws.

3-Can you tell your friends about your blog?
Most of my friends know about my blog and read it at least some of the time (hi Ade!). That does sometimes lead to one of those "Stop me if you’ve heard this one" moments when we go out for coffee (whereas with my husband I tend to go for the reproachful, "Well if you’d read my blog today, you’d already know this…") I’ve even recruited a friend to the blogosphere (she’ll post more when her baby sleeps more).

4-Do you just read the blogs of those who comment on your blog?
It depends on my workload. When I’m doing a lot of teaching, the no-new-blogs rule applies, but when things ease up, a-blog-hunting I go. Right now I’ve got about five Bloglines subscriptions to bloggers who’ve never commented here, and a few more from people who commented once six months ago and then never came back.

5-Did your blog positively affect your mind?
Hmmm, how has blogging affected my mind? It’s turned up the volume on the interior monologue that’s been running in my head since my teenage diary days… It’s filled my mind with trendy expressions I would otherwise never use… It’s accustomed me to living with a constant sense of gleeful anticipation… It’s trained me to put words to my children, and to my feelings for them, and thus to see them more, and better.

6-What does the number of visitors to your blog mean?
The more the merrier! I enjoy hosting good discussions in the comments, but I keep a finger on my pulse at all times to make sure I don’t start caring TOO much about the numbers.

7-Do you imagine what other bloggers look like?
Nope. I don’t really have a visual imagination.

8-Do you think blogging has any real benefit?
Define the word "real" please. Blogging demonstrably has a benefit in providing an outlet for creativity and self-expression. Reading blogs can be beneficial too: it has the power to dissipate some of that miasma of guilt and self-hatred that the cult of mothering seems to inculcate. I don’t consider these benefits to be less "real" because they cannot be measured, quantified, or assigned a dollar value.

9-Do you think that the blogosphere is a stand alone community separated from the real world?
Yes. You mean we were supposed to keep on interacting with actual human beings?

10-Do some political blogs scare you? Do you avoid them?
I’m a political blog virgin. Or, at least, there was that one blog I went to second base with during the Canadian Blog Awards…but really, I’m still a virgin.

11-Do you think that criticizing your blog is useful?
No thank you.

12-Have you ever thought about what would happen to your blog in case you died?
No. (But I have had the occasional morbid fantasy of what I would post in the event of the sudden accidental death of one of my children.)

13-Which blogger had the greatest impression on you?
It feels stunningly unoriginal to say this, but in the interests of truthfulness I’ll admit it’s Her Bad Mother. She is the reason I started my blog and she continually inspires me. I love (and shamelessly rip off at times) the way she blends frivolity with erudition, and when she describes her love for her daughter, I find myself constantly envious of phrases I wish I had written myself (like my favourite: "her wee proud belly" – try as I might, I’ve never found better words for my daughter’s innocence, her utter lack of self-consciousness).

14-Which blogger do you think is the most similar to you?
Mouse. Superficially, we are as different as can be, but there’s no one else with whom I have so many, "Yup, I could have written this post" moments. Our minds work the same way, I think – when faced with a problem, we make lists.

15-Name a song you want to listen to?
I’m tempted to say something like U2’s cover of "Everlasting Love" or Dido’s "White Flag" – two of my favourite songs. But I’ve got those songs on CD just a few feet away (I’m still living in the pre-iPod era), and I’m not playing either one of them, so obviously I don’t actually want to listen to them. I could pick something like the Barenaked Ladies’ Hanukkah song, which is off-limits until next year (the Hebrew words always give me goose bumps), but really I like sticking to the rules: no holiday music after New Year’s. The song I love the most, ever since the Pie was born, is the one I’m listening to right now – sweet, sweet silence.

Thanks so much to Cinnamon Gurl for the tag (I was coveting a few of those Christmas memes that went around last month, and I really, really wanted this one!). Who shall I tag? Jana and Momish – you’re it!

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Happiness Is Not a Fish That You Can Catch

My friends and I all had our babies comparatively late in life. We cruised through our twenties doing useless graduate degrees and traveling to locations north of the Arctic Circle and south of the equator. The first of us finally got around to having a baby at age 29. And boy, that first step was a doozy. For a long time, I refused to call Bub’s constant fussiness "colic" because that word was defined for me by this friend’s baby, who wailed inconsolably around the clock. In retrospect, it seems likely that her baby slept at least occasionally, but those brief intervals were scarcely worth mentioning compared to the marathon wake-the-neighbours screaming sessions that would follow. The only break from the constant rocking and pacing occurred when a relative dropped by to take over while my friend frantically threw a load of laundry in the washer.

I lived in a different country and time zone back then, so I heard these tales from afar, and although I was horrified by them, I realize now how very much I didn’t get it. I had no clue why she was so overwhelmed at the task of boarding a two-hour flight alone with her three-month-old baby; I had no concept of why introducing a bottle or "getting the baby on a schedule" was out of the question.

What I did get, though, was a sinking feeling every time she earnestly assured me that "it’s all worth it." From my childless perspective, the stench of her wilful self-deception was all too palpable.

I’ve caught myself mentally insisting "It’s all worth it!" a lot lately, ever since I read this article on the miseries of parenthood. Apparently, ground-breaking research has shown that looking after babies is not as easy or fun as sleeping in and watching TV. This news has come as a shock to interviewees who expected childbirth to initiate a period of unadulterated joy.

(I keep having simultaneous, contradictory reactions to statements like that. "Of course I’m happy!" I shriek. And, "What kind of idiot equates infant-care with happiness?")

With my friend’s Übercolicky offspring as my example, I never expected my babies’ infancy to be a time of madonna-like peace and bliss. So why did I do it? Why do I feel that, given the chance to do it over, I would do it all again?

Bubandpie’s Top Ten Rationalizations for Having Babies

10) The only alternative to having babies is not having babies.
Perhaps the parents of young children are not as happy, on average, as childless adults who never wanted children, or adults who plan to have their children later on, but I suspect we are happier than those who wanted children and were never able to have them, and I’m certain we are happier than those who are desperately trying to have children, with no success.

9) Our children make our lives bigger. It’s easy to see how our lives shrink when we have our babies, contracting into the tiny space of our bedrooms and living rooms, our well-worn path from work to day-care to home. It’s easy to overlook how our lives expand spatially, temporally – what matters is no longer confined to what affects me personally.

8) Though I feel like a worse person, I know I’m a better person. Motherhood confronts me constantly with my shortcomings: my anger, my selfishness, my idleness. I feel exhausted, unable to contribute anything beyond the narrow circle of my family. And yet I know that I am being stretched, that I am capable of more patience and devotion now than I was in the days when my emotional and moral resources were more than equal to the paltry demands of my life.

7) It will all be fun to look back on someday. According to a survey in Today’s Parent magazine, most parents surveyed select infancy and toddlerhood as the easiest stages of parenting. This proves conclusively, I think, that this stage of life is much more fun to remember than it is to actually live through. That’s why we keep baby-books: even through the haze of sleep-deprivation, resentment, and boredom, we know that at the end of our lives, these are the days we’ll remember with the sharpest nostalgia; if, like Emily in Our Town, we are given the chance after death to relive a single day of our lives, we’ll pick one of these.

6) We get admission to the Secret Club. I’ve never had much small-talk; it’s always been hard for me to find common ground with strangers. After the Bub was born, I was amazed at how easy it became to talk to anyone who is a parent – and luckily, that category includes most people. When I’m out with my children, I always see smiles of recognition from dads with toddlers and moms pushing strollers. Old ladies stop to peek at the baby and remind me, uselessly, to "enjoy every minute." I don’t, of course, enjoy every minute, but I appreciate the sense of kinship that lies behind those words. Before I had my babies, I didn’t know there was a Club, didn’t realize I was excluded from this giant segment of the human experience.

5) It’s a relief to escape from the pressure to be happy. When I was in high school, I spent three months on a student exchange in Germany. It was a great experience – I was happy there. But part of the reason for my happiness was the giddy rush of freedom from the obligation to be happy. At any given time, it didn’t matter if I was happy, or popular, or entertained because the purpose of those three months was to learn the German language. Teenagers are under tremendous pressure to have fun; it is the meaning of their existence. To fail to have fun is to fail as a person. I’ve never had so much fun as I did for those three months when having fun became strictly optional. Life without children is rarely like that – meaningful enough to make happiness superfluous.

4) It’s like falling in love. "It’s never a mistake to marry a man you want to marry," Agatha Christie once wrote, "even if you regret it later." Coming from someone whose unhappy divorce drove her nearly to madness, those words have always been memorable for me. As a teenager, I made rather a specialty of cultivating unhappiness in the name of romantic love. It leant a kind of glamour to my existence – deep, morbid sadness was infinitely preferable to the drab boredom of high school. Playing with crayons and dinky cars can be boring; the passionate ups and downs of motherhood are not.

3) I want to get to know these people, my children. During my first pregnancy, hubby and I talked about how we looked forward to age 3 or 4, when we would start getting a glimpse of our child's personality. And we weren't wrong: the other day we went to the library, and as we walked through the mall afterwards, Bub kept his nose buried in the book he had selected, walking along with half an eye on the path in front of him, like some apparition of my former self. As it turns out, my prenatal daydreams did not overrate this sensation, this delight in getting to know my controlled, studious, intelligent boy.

2) A happiness shared is more than doubled. My happiest moments, pre-baby, were those that took me out of myself: the soaring notes of "40" at the end of a U2 concert, the gold medal victory of the Canadian hockey team in Salt Lake City, the bright yellow fall leaves that fell across my path when I went horseback riding through the woods. My happiest moments now are more human, more integral to my life, but they have the same self-annihilating quality: I lose myself in the untempered enthusiasm with which Bub greets paper emerging from the printer, jumping up and down and shouting "Here it comes!"; I am taken off guard, always, by the gusto with which the Pie announces "Hug!" before hurling herself in my arms.

1) My children give me hope and a future. When I was eleven years old, I went shopping with my mother at the old Eatons store downtown. We went up to the cafeteria on the top floor and had lunch: chocolate milk and macaroni and cheese. It was the first time that I felt like a companion to my mother; I was thrilled with the intimacy of our little two-person luncheon, honoured to have reached the age where she could recommend grown-up books to me, like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice. Now I eagerly look forward to sharing that kind of day with my own children, when parenthood can be tempered with friendship.

As Dido sings in a song I listen to each Christmas, "you should thank God for the blessing of such beauty." In a world that is often ugly, I have in my life two creatures of perfect beauty. My life may not be happier for it, but it is deeper, purer, more whole. It’s all worth it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Two and a Half Years Later

The same glasses...


...but a whole new boy:


...and his sister:


...having fun together.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Everybody/Nobody

(It’s always nice to be part of a beleaguered minority…)

Everybody fills your ears with horror stories about babies – the agonies of childbirth, the 3 am feedings, the diapers and tantrums… It’s all been so much easier than I expected.
Nobody warns you about how hard it’s going to be – about how much breastfeeding hurts, or how exhausting a newborn baby can be. I’ve never felt so alone in my life.

Everybody will pressure you to CIO, to get the baby sleeping in a crib, to offer an occasional bottle of formula. Just ignore these people and follow your instincts.
Nobody talks about how crazy the sleep deprivation makes you. CIO if you need to – just don’t tell anybody unless you want to be called out for child abuse.

Everybody assumes that a bottle-feeding mother is lazy, selfish, or neglectful. News flash: formula is not the devil’s beverage.
Nobody thinks twice about the boobs that are plastered all over the cover of Cosmopolitan – so why do they make such a fuss about a woman using her breasts for their real purpose?

Everybody’s first question when they see that you’re pregnant is, "Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?" Why do they care? All I want is a healthy baby.
Nobody admits to having a gender preference when it comes to their unborn babies. "All we want is a healthy child," they claim, as if that makes them morally superior.

Everybody feeds their children fast food and soda – no wonder we have so much childhood obesity.
Nobody wants to admit that they’ve double-dipped their jars of baby food or given their children processed cheese. The competimommies are too busy trying to outdo one another in the organic, whole-grain, homemade baby food competition.

Everybody is emulating the new, cool moms: bored by their children, knocking back martinis at happy hour, making their yummy mummy fashion statements in micro-minis and heels.
Nobody acknowledges that playing with children can be tedious, that motherhood is less than wholly fulfilling: the guilt is too overwhelming.

and finally…

Everybody is against me.
Nobody understands me.
That's because everything I say is revolutionary.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Auld Lang Syne

"At least there won’t be dancing this year," I reminded hubby as we drove from the restaurant to our friends’ home, where we rang in the new year last night. When it comes to New Year’s Eve festivities, my husband has a tendency toward curmudgeonliness. Choosing the restaurant is a tightrope-walking act as I attempt to balance my tastes against hubby’s aversion to anything resembling fine dining. Last year we feasted on the Bloomin’ Onion at the Outback Steakhouse, so this year I felt entitled to a restaurant where the Caesar salad would be served with prosciutto instead of bacon. (Indeed, the restaurant we chose even featured a lemon ice sorbet to cleanse the palate – but only on the ladies’ plates; apparently women are unoffended by garlic breath in their husbands, concerned only with avoiding halitosis themselves.) If the meal is a minefield, the afterparty is even worse: hubby’s discriminating gaming tastes are not always reflected in the company we keep, and the din of X-Box on the surround sound system is often enough to drive him home before midnight.

Eight years ago, I hosted a New Year’s party for this same group of friends. I was newly single, living with my parents, who kindly vacated the house so that I could have everybody over. The marble foyer became an impromptu dance floor as we played Prince’s "1999" to celebrate the last year of the old millennium. Despite his aversion to loud music and dancing, he-who-would-be-hubby got lickered up enough to cut loose a little bit, and when I grabbed him by the shoulders to steer him out onto the dance floor, it was the first voluntary physical contact between us. It would be another two months before I’d know for sure that he’d noticed.

Out of the twenty-odd celebrants from my famous New Year’s Eve party (the only time I’ve ever been bold enough to host anything), six couples made it to last night’s get-together. For us, the last eight years have included two break-ups (neither of which stuck), six weddings, and seven babies, with three more on the way. One couple was represented only by the husband; the wife is in the hospital right now, four weeks into a six-week stint of bedrest before her scheduled C-section.

Naturally, there was lots of talk of babies. "You’re past the thirty-week point now – the home stretch," the hostess reassured a friend who is seven months into her first pregnancy after four years of infertility. "It’s always a good feeling to get past that thirty-week milestone," I added – "but these are the longest weeks of your life." My friend is due in March, and at the point in her pregnancy when people fail to hide how startled they are to discover that her delivery is still a whole season away: she has a great, gorgeous belly, tight and high and perfectly spherical. All of us found this New Year a little more meaningful than usual because it will bring this friend her long, long awaited baby girl.

But there was also one newcomer to this party: a girl with a tiny, flat belly that suggests she cannot possibly have borne a child. We had one of those totally uninformative introductions: I know her name, and who she came with, but no other contextual details. Perhaps because of this vagueness I found myself observing the evening from what I imagined to be her perspective (but what was really, I suspect, my own perspective as a younger, pre-baby, just-dating twenty-something). It was a strange experience, listening to all the talk of pregnancies and babies through the ears of my former self.

Not that our children are all we talked about – while the men played X-Box I introduced the women to Chez Geek, a game that can always be relied upon to trigger fond reminiscences of our slacker days. "That’s what I got drunk on in Cuba," our hostess remarked as I played the "Tequila Shots" card.

"I remember that phone call!" another friend replied.

"Oh right. I called Canada from Cuba in the middle of the night. Just because I wanted to say hello."

Those days seem far away now, but instead of feeling nostalgia or regret, I started to remember what it was actually like to be heading into my late twenties, unattached and living with my parents. Eight years ago I wore my little black dress, a flimsy, swishy size six garment designed to show off my concave post-divorce tummy – and if I could have looked ahead to see myself clad in my monochromatic tummy-minimizing knitwear, playing cards with the girls in the depressingly gender-segregated habit we’ve fallen into since we morphed into wives and mothers, I would have been amazed.

Because I have it all – all I ever wanted.