Thursday, March 29, 2007

Real Moms Get Sick...

…and write posts in vaguely Elmo-ish voices. (Just imagine Elmo, only more adenoidal.)

Real moms snort and sniffle, cough and wheeze.

Real moms listen to the rattle in their bronchi and find themselves hoarsely humming that Crash Test Dummies song about J. Alfred Prufrock – and are not afraid of dating themselves by saying so.

Real moms get up, make breakfast, change diapers, get dressed, grade papers, push swings, vacuum messes, fix lunch, read stories, clean cat-barf, go for walks, wipe noses, grill cheese, boil vegetables, run baths, and give tuck-ins, even when they’re feverish and can’t really breathe, because if a real mom has a virus, then chances are her day-care provider has it too, and if her day-care provider had it first, then chances are the real mom has already called in all her babysitting favours, and if she has no more sets of grandparents to call in, then she may just be too tired to think of an ending for this sentence.

Real moms find themselves gazing languidly at their children, who are screaming as they play tug-of-war with a banana that they apparently helped themselves to from the kitchen counter, and vaguely recall that they’re supposed to do something at such junctures, but can’t remember what, or bring themselves to care.

Real moms are too weary to find anyone who hasn’t done this meme already, or even to properly link to Dani, Ali, and Becky, all of whom tagged them (her?), so real mom will just say help yourself and then rest her head on the kitchen table while she decides whether to spend the rest of the two-hour nap window (a) writing mommy-blogging panel presentation, (b) running essential pre-trip errands, (c) preparing for Monday’s classes (since weekend will be spent in Kentucky doing mommy-blogging panel), or (d) sitting with her head on the kitchen table.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shopaholic With a Bun in the Oven

I’ve fallen behind in my Shopaholic reading. After Becky took Manhattan, I got off the bandwagon, citing two major sources of discontentment with the series:

1) The Heart-Attack Factor: The premise of these books is that Becky is a likable ne’er-do-well who is constantly getting herself into trouble by (a) overspending, and (b) lying herself into a corner. Both of these traits may result in hilarious mishaps and convoluted plot twists, but I find them incredibly stressful. Instead of laughing uproariously, I’m gripping the book tightly, my heart racing. It’s bad for my blood pressure. It’s especially bad for bedtime reading, resulting in more than one case of insomnia. In the end, it’s just not worth it – the series’ charms were not enough to outweigh the health risks.

2) The Inevitable Relapse Factor: The formula for the series requires Becky to spend herself into the red, make several doomed attempts to recoup her losses, and then Reform. And that poses a problem: the happy ending of the first book is inevitably exposed as illusory so that the same formula can be followed in the second book. After awhile, the happy ending becomes less-than-usually credible, and the inevitable relapse becomes just a bit too predictable.

Based on those two objections, I stopped reading the series after The Shopaholic Takes Manhattan. When Shopaholic and Baby appeared on the Random House catalogue for spring books, however, I decided to give it a chance. As a friend of mine pointed out, the series has become less stressful since Becky married Luke (Moneybags) Brandon. Now that Becky’s excesses are backed by an apparently bottomless well of finances, the letters that appear between chapters are coolly disapproving missives from bankers who advise against her investment plans rather than increasingly urgent notices from creditors and collection agencies.

Having read the latest installment, I’ll concede that Sophie Kinsella has exercised a reasonable amount of creativity in order to avoid the Inevitable Relapse pitfall. I haven’t read Shopaholic and Sister, but I like the premise: Becky is forced to confront – and eventually befriend – her nemesis, a thrifty, idealistic, granola-crunching sister, who is likable despite her pedantry, just as Becky is likable despite her compulsive lying. That’s a far more interesting foil than the usual snobby high-brow bitch (whose presence is necessary in order to explain why intelligent, successful men keep marrying these heroines who have nothing to offer aside from their chronic insecurity and low-brow street-cred). I love Mark Darcy and I love Bridget Jones, but I’m never entirely convinced that he would marry her, except in a world where the only alternative is to marry beautiful but cold-hearted snobs named Natasha.

When I picked up the book, I expected it (for some reason) to be about Becky and her baby. I expected to see her compulsively buying up gadgets and videos, hoping to keep the baby entertained, much as I did when the Bub was a newborn. I’m no shopaholic: I consider buying shoes to be something of a chore, and even clothes-shopping isn’t what it used to be anymore. But motherhood made me a shopper: I scoured toy stores and baby shops, hunting for the magic bullet that would make this gig a bit easier.

The book, as it turns out, isn’t about that. The baby doesn’t show up until the final chapter, and then it functions as the happy-ending bringer, when the wonders of motherhood wean Becky (temporarily, I’m sure) away from the thrill of shopping. The novel follows Becky’s pregnancy, but it isn’t really a novel about a pregnant woman either: Becky is spry and energetic, with a trim little tummy that rarely gets in the way of her fashion sense. Considering that this genre of chick-lit is based almost entirely on identification with the heroine’s imperfections, I found this a little hard to take.

What I liked about the book, though, was its insight that shopping, for Becky, is about knowledge. Her shopaholism isn’t driven by vanity, greed, or even materialism – it’s a body of knowledge that she is driven to acquire, a knowledge not only of what is currently fashionable, but also of where to find it. (One plot line even involves Becky hiring a private detective to track down where her assistant gets her eyebrows done, as if to highlight the way fashion functions as a knowledge economy.)

High fashion is a world Becky inhabits as a kind of researcher, acquiring expertise and wielding it generously. In this case, her knowledge saves the failing department-store at which she works: Becky has an unfailing instinct for consumerism, one that she can use to create a successful business plan. For her, the biggest challenge of pregnancy is her ignorance of the baby-fashion business: she is appalled, early in the novel, to discover that she has reached the fifth month of pregnancy yet somehow remained wholly unaware of the existence of "Baby in Urbe", a top infant-fashion line.

Intentionally absurd as this is, it echoed my own experience of pregnancy – the sinking feeling of incompetence that would overcome me when I considered things like Snugli carriers and Lamaze toys. The sheer array of products is anxiety-inducing; those shelves stocked with exersaucers and bottle systems serve as a visible sign of our dangerous ignorance. How will I manage to look after a baby if I can’t even learn how to fold and unfold a stroller? How will I meet my baby’s needs if I don’t have a bottle-warmer, or even realize that one is necessary?

This isn’t a novel about babies, or pregnancy, but it is a novel about shopping for babies, and as such it allowed me to revisit that anxious version of myself, and sigh a little in relief that I’ve outgrown her.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Eat Your Crusts

Bub eats his sandwiches from the outside in, biting his way through the crusts and winding up with a wodgy mass of bread and peanut butter smushed between his fingers. His paternal grandparents beam on him when he does this, thrilled at this evidence of the dominance of their genes. I myself am an inveterate crust-leaver, with crusts being only the thin edge of my picky wedge: I don’t eat cauliflower or soybeans or brussels sprouts or angel-food cake, not even the "thank-you helping" that my husband was raised to choke down.

Bub is, in fact, more my son than anyone wants to acknowledge (including me): he subsists on a diet of macaroni-and-cheese and grilled-cheese sandwiches, with an occasional banana or baby carrot (which he treats more as souvenir than food item, clutching it fondly as I tuck him into bed and awakening in the night demanding, "Mama, where’s carrot? Don’t forget about the carrot!"). Let’s just say his food attitudes leave something to be desired. But in regard to eating his crusts, he’s a champ.

My own grandmother would, I’m sure, be equally thrilled if she could look down from heaven upon his crust-eating practices. Like many of her generation, she disapproved of crust-leaving as a violation of the principle of Thrift. It’s not that the crusts have significant monetary value: if I can be satisfied with a lunch consisting of merely the middle of my sandwich, then there is no real cash incentive to choke down a few crusts. It’s the habit that is questionable. The crusts I throw out today may morph into an entire plate of pasta tomorrow. Before long, I may find myself tossing away whole packages of chicken just because they’re a day or two past their expiry (to say nothing of the fact that I purchased boneless skinless chicken breasts in the first place!). Eating crusts is part of a larger commitment to stretching every meal, every penny, as far as it will go. Not eating one’s crusts is symptomatic of a larger laziness.

Unlike my grandmother, my mother is not an especially thrifty woman, but she too has endeavoured in vain to break me of my crust-leaving habit. This may originally have been based on the idea that crusts have nutritional value. She wouldn’t promise, as my grandmother did, that eating my crusts would give me curly hair, but still, she seemed to consider them nutritionally important (following the general principle that the least tasty part of any food is where all the vitamins are kept). All that changed once she found out about the cancer-causing properties of oxidation (and crusts, after all, are nothing but oxidized bread); since then, I’ve heard few lectures from her on the subject.

Still, she is disturbed, I think, by the psychological implications of crust-leaving. Crusts, after all, do not taste all that bad. To be sure, they aren’t as good as the inside of the sandwich, and there is occasionally a lamentably low jam-to-bread ratio – but on the whole they taste just fine. Eating one’s crusts involves an acknowledgement that in order to enjoy the delectable fillings of life, we need to make our way through the boring parts, the not-quite-as-tasty parts, the parts we tolerate rather than enjoy. Crust-eating prepares us for life, teaches us to take the good with the bad. (There’s a reason that we use ingestion metaphors, like "suck it up," for the act of tolerating adverse circumstances.)

Personally, I think my aversion to crusts has to do not so much with taste as with function. Crusts are the holders of the sandwich; to eat them would be like crunching down a popsicle stick or swallowing a chocolate-bar wrapper. I’ve never been able to make that switch, half-way through the sandwich, from holding the crust to taking bites out of it. It’s just plain wrong.

But that is not to say that my mother and grandmother were mistaken about the pernicious effects of crust-leaving. As it turns out, I can be something of a spendthrift and a shirker. I try to wiggle my way out of the hard parts of life, rather than relishing my own stoicism in facing them. And when in grade eight I finally decided I wanted curly hair, I went out and got a spiral perm, leaving my crusts on the plate.

Let's make this simple. Here is your hair on crusts:


Here is your hair on a bad 1985 spiral perm:

Friday, March 23, 2007

Books, Books, Books

…that’s all you ever see!
[Bubandpie] has a hundred,
And I have a few.


(Actual entry from my grade two autograph book. Crystal handed it back to me explaining that she had thought up an awesome rhyme to end that poem, but then forgot what it was. Any guesses?)

Becky has tagged me for the book meme that’s been going around based on the 100 greatest novels of all time as voted by the general public. (Actually, she didn’t tag me so much as cordially invite me. See the honesty, there? I’m working on it.) I’m an ornery type, so instead of simply bolding the ones I’ve read, or adding a complicated coding system indicating whether I’ve read the book once, or many times, or not at all, or want to read it, or thought it was "meh," I’m going to chop the list up into categories and add whatever kind of commentary I feel like. If you want to see the list in the original order of popularity, go here.

(Despite Crystal’s autograph-signing claims, I did not own one hundred books when I was eight years old. I do own considerably more than one hundred books now, but you should note that I have read less than half of the list below, a record I was initially somewhat ashamed of, but the work of hacking up the list into categories has cheered me up considerably. You’ll see why.)

Books I’ve Read Once (And That Was Plenty)

1. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
2. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Tolkien)
3. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Tolkien) (good books, glad I read ‘em, don’t plan to read them again)
4. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)
5. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
6. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
7. Confessions of a Shopoholic (Sophie Kinsella) (not that that will stop me from reading the sequels, mind you)
8. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver) (to find out more about why I hated this novel, you can read my comments on Gwen’s posts – I hated the book but I loved her posts about it!)
9. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)
10. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford) (What can I say? I went on a multi-generational saga binge when I was fifteen.)
11. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)

The Red-Faced Files

I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read…
12. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
13. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) (an omission that seriously impeded my ability to explain important intertextual references in another novel that I taught this term)
14. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) (are you noticing the theme? I’m seriously behind on my Great American Classics)
15. A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
16. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)

The Not-Nearly-So-Red-Faced Files (otherwise known as the What Were They Thinking? Files)

I might go so far as to say that I’m quite proud of not having read…
17. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
18. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
19. The Stand (Stephen King)
20. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
21. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
22. The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Mitch Albom)
23. Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)
24. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
25. The Celestine Prophesy (James Redfield)

The Essentials (Books That Made Me Who I Am Today)

26. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen) (surprise, surprise)
27. Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
28. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
29. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
30. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)
31. The Bible
32. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
33. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Helen Fielding)
34. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)

Cracking Good Reads

35. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J.K. Rowling)
36. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (J.K. Rowling)
37. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)
38. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J.K. Rowling)
39. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
40. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)
41. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
42. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
43. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J.K. Rowling)
44. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
45. Watership Down (Richard Adams)
46. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)
47. 1984 (George Orwell)

Great European Classics

48. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
49. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
50. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
51. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) (which goes to show, I think, that I was far more ambitious in my reading at age 15 than I am today)
52. Les Miserables (Hugo)

Overrated

53. Great Expectations (Dickens)
54. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley) (to see why I hated this book, read my comments on The Poisonwood Bible, only substitute "Noah" for "Nathan Price")
57. Emma (Jane Austen)
58. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields) (love Austen, love Shields – but these aren’t their best books)
59. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
60. Ulysses (James Joyce) (you don’t have to read it to know it’s overrated)

I’m Not In Oprah’s Book Club

61. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
62. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)
63. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
64. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald) (though I love her play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet))
65. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry)
66. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)
67. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
68. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)

(The sad part is that this isn’t even an exhaustive list of the Oprah’s book-club selections that made the top 100: The Poisonwood Bible and Anna Karenina got the Oprah nod as well, for a grand total of ten books, or 10% of the whole list. Thought I'd save you the trouble of doing the math yourself there.)

Wouldn’t Mind Reading

If, say, I was at the cottage and the only source of reading material was a shelf stacked with these books, I’d probably pick one up.
69. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
70. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
71. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
72. The World According To Garp (John Irving)
73. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
74. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
75. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)

(I actually own three of these books – Life of Pi, Of Mice and Men, and The Bourne Identity – but somehow haven’t gotten around to reading them, hence the stranded-at-the-beach-with-no-other-reading scenario.)

Wouldn’t Mind Reading Again

76. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
77. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
78. Fifth Business (Robertson Davies)
79. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
80. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
81. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)

No, Thanks

82. Dune (Frank Herbert)
83. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
84. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
85. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
86. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
87. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
88. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)
89. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
90. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
91. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez)
92. Shogun (James Clavell)
93. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)

I’ve Never Actually Heard of These Books

94. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)
95. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
96. Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini) (yes – apparently I have been living under a rock)
97. Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)
98. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind) (I like the title, though!)
99. Blindness (Jose Saramago)
100. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer) (I’ve heard of the author, though – isn’t he the one Bridget Jones humiliates herself in front of at the book launch?)

This was surprisingly time-consuming, so no tags here – participation is strictly voluntary.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Moment

The Pie has a cold this week. Her cough is thick and phlegmy, and great yellow slugs of snot creep constantly from her nose. This afternoon she woke up crying hard, clearly needing to return to sleep yet unable to do so. After a few failed attempted to soothe her back to sleep, I hauled her out of the crib and sat down. With a sigh of relief, Pie let her head drop to my shoulder. Her body relaxed.

Pinned by the warm weight of her body, I was at leisure to consider exactly how many essays I have to grade, and how little opportunity I have to grade them. Six more papers to grade before tomorrow; a set of 15 to return on Monday; a fresh new batch of 20 coming in on Monday; 15 late papers to be graded sometime before the end of term. Also occupying my thoughts was the fact that Bub was now stranded in "quiet time," putting him in grave danger of actually falling asleep – an eventuality that would result in an evening full of daring escapes from the bedroom, ending sometime after 10 pm.

I’ve never been one to hold my babies while they sleep. Indeed, during those early months I was so dependent on the breaks provided by naps that I dropped the poor babies like hot potatoes the moment they began to drift into slumber, terrified that the luxury of cuddling would become habit-forming. I know that this fear has robbed me of many pleasures – even now, I can sense the sweetness of the way my daughter’s trusting body folds into mine – but the claustrophobia wins out every time. I try to focus on the loveliness of the moment, but I feel trapped, tethered. I plan out phone calls I intend to place to my husband at work, warning him that I’m done, that I’m leaving the house the minute he gets home, to return only after the children are in bed.

And then I hear the Pie murmuring something softly under her breath. She stretches her arms out, patting my shoulders with her little hands, and I lean in to catch what she’s saying.

"Happy," she whispers, nestling her head a little deeper into the crook of my neck, "happy."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Music to My Ears

  • The Pie has two loves right now: food and words. Best of all is the opportunity to combine them by eating polysyllabic foods like perogies, broccoli, or souvlaki. After a meal like that I’ll listen to her on the monitor, talking herself to sleep by repeating, "PerOHgies! PerOHgies! One two three four five …six perOHgies!"

  • Last night, during the hour and a half between nap and dinner, Bub and Pie amused themselves with the following astonishing and entirely out of character display of independent play: (1) poking holes through paper with a pen; (2) carrying around a large cardboard wrapping-paper tube and declaring, "It’s a violin!"; (3) pushing Boohbah around in a toy stroller; (4) opening and shutting the basement door with greetings such as, "Come on in!" and "See you soon!"


    We can be independent together!

  • In imitation of her brother, Pie has taken to carrying around a plastic Baby Einstein bath book. This prompts Bub to offer an occasional commentary: "Rub a dub! Funny hairs!!!" (this being his refrain whenever hubby sculpts his shampooed head into various menacing-looking horns and fauxhawks).

  • Pie has discovered the wonderful world of nursery rhymes. We were looking at a book yesterday with a picture of Humpty Dumpty, so I recited the rhyme for her (apparently for the first time – my kids are lucky like that). Her astonishment was palpable. She has heard nursery rhymes before (mostly "This Little Piggy" and "Patty Cake"), but nothing as addictively rhythmic as "Humpty Dumpty." She stared at my lips, as if trying to sort out how I was doing it, then tapped my chest with her and demanded, "Mama dancing!" every time she wanted a repeat. (I wasn't dancing.)

  • When Pie is searching for a missing toy, she gets all excited, exclaiming, "It's hide and seek! It's hide and seek!"

  • My day-care provider is sick this week, which means, on the one hand, increased opportunities for me to record cute anecdotes about my children, but allows, on the other hand, decreased opportunities for me to mark essays, prepare lectures, or read blogs.

  • Note to self: If your day-care provider is sick, necessitating the arrangement of in-home babysitting, remember to put away the recently purchased package of Durex Pleasuremax Ribbed Condoms with Warming Lubricant before your in-laws arrive.

  • At the behest of Alpha DogMa, here are the seven tunes I’ve been listening to lately: (This was hard. Rare are the opportunities for me to listen to music these days. Normally, any attempt to put in a CD results in a chorus of screamed requests for "Hi-5 songs!" This acts as an effective deterrent to my pursuit of listening pleasure.)

    1. U2, "Windows in the Sky" – My drive to work lasts only seven or eight minutes – just long enough for me to pop in this single, one of my few recent music purchases.

    2. U2, "Kite" (live in Sydney) – I’m loving the part where Bono introduces Edge’s guitar solo saying, "Cate … Blanchett – this is for you."

    3. Hi-5, "You Are! Some Kind of Wonderful! (You’re Wonderful!)" – Mischievously catchy song from the new season. I am apt to sing it at various points throughout the day, prompting Bub to ask, "Mama, are you talking about Hi-5 bideo?"


    4. "How Deep the Father’s Love For Us" – The closing hymn at church on Sunday. It’s a modern song, but without the repetitiveness or first-person navel-gazing typical of most contemporary worship choruses. During my stint as an Anglican, I often waxed nostalgic about the good old-fashioned Baptist blood hymns, and the pianist (a former Pentecostal) would oblige me with a rousing rendition of "When We All Get to Heaven" – just for the fun of watching ultra-high-Church Evan get his crucifix swinging back and forth to the beat. "How Deep the Father’s Love For Us" lacks the references to blood, vict’ry and pow’r needed in order to qualify as a genuine Baptist blood hymn, but the final words always give me chills: "Why should I gain from His reward? / I cannot give an answer / But this I know with all my heart / His wounds have paid my ransom."

    5. Frankie Goes to Hollywood, "Relax" – The first song on the mixed CD currently in my CD player – the one the kids can start and stop at will, barking out commands such as, "Mama dancing! Stop! Go! Stop! Go!" Good times.

    6. Matchbox Twenty, "Back to Good" – Frequently played on the desperately un-hip retro station I listen to ("Best of the ’80s, ’90s, and whatever!"). The melancholy always gets me (the more cynically manufactured clichés the better, that’s what I always say).

    7. Veggie Tales, "Funky Town" – From Bob and Larry Sing the 70s, playing right now as my in-laws try to keep the kids occupied so I can blog work. Someone please make it stop.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

My Pants are Burning

CYRIL: Lying! I should have thought that our politicians kept up that habit.
VIVIAN: I assure you that they do not. They never rise beyond the level of misrepresentation, and actually condescend to prove, to discuss, to argue. How different from the temper of the true liar, with his frank, fearless statements, his superb irresponsibility, his healthy, natural disdain of proof of any kind!
(Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying")

I consider myself to be a truthful person. I might go so far as to say that being truthful is an essential component of my sense of self. By this, I mean that I do not have a personality disorder. I do not create a false identity and attempt to prevail upon strangers to believe that I’m a gynecologist named Kitty, nor do I weave elaborate webs of deception, à la Bridget Jones or the Shopaholic, in order to conceal my neuroses so that hilarity can ensue. Indeed, I make rather a habit of exhibiting my neuroses for all to see (I think that this makes people like me more, and I’m not always wrong about that).

There are times, of course, that I make a principled stand on behalf of honesty. I have confessed embarrassing lapses to friends in order to avoid taking credit for a virtue I don’t possess. I report the accurate total of my expenditures when crossing the border into Canada, even if my trip to New York lasted only two days and was spent almost entirely on Fifth Avenue. (This stance became much easier when I realized that I pay only the G.S.T. on those cross-border purchases, rather than some terrifying amount of duty.) When hubby and I were dating, I spent a three-hour car trip arguing with him about the ethical advisability of hypothetically sneaking a collapsible cup into a movie theatre in order to take advantage of their free refill policy without having to interrupt the movie. (Hubby was for it; I was against.)

Despite these heroic stances, I have been known to play fast and loose with the truth. In yesterday’s post, for instance, I referred to one of my college roommates as "the Italian-born Francesca." As you may have surmised, "Francesca" is not her real name. I don’t count that as a lie, however, because pseudonyms are so well-known a convention of the blogging genre that the "not her real name" footnote seems superfluous (plus, I still haven’t figured out the HTML code for footnotes). It may shock you, however, to discover that the real-life roommate to whose crystalline wedding reception I referred was not actually born in Italy. Her parents and sister were born there, but "Francesca" herself was born and raised in Etobicoke.

Such brevity-enhancing fibs are not entirely uncommon in my blog; they do not occur for the sake of personal advantage or self-aggrandizement, but merely to avoid unnecessary and tiresome explanations. I could avoid them, I suppose, by cultivating a chattier style: I might say, "Italian-born Francesca – well, okay, she wasn’t born in Italy, but most of her relatives were – had an elaborate and expensive reception…" I can’t quite pull that off, though – my sentence structures are too labyrinthine already.

My lies do not stop with such shortcuts and evasions, however. If we include the category of Exaggeration, most of my blog – like most of my life – becomes a giant lie. (See? That’s really not especially true. Exaggeration is a characteristic mode for me, but I can’t imagine that it comprises 25% of my utterances, much less the majority.) Exaggeration is only one of several conversation-promoting mechanisms that make up my regular repertoire of lies. Other mechanisms might include Oversimplification, the Creation of Spurious Categories, or the Construction of Facetious Theories.

In Send in the Idiots (a book I’m indebted to Mom-NOS for recommending), Kamran Nazeer points out that such lies and fabrications are the stuff of which conversation is made. He describes a conversation in which a friend expounded her theories about children’s literature:
I had spoken to her about some of these books before, but we had spoken about them book by book and what we remembered of them. But, this time, she said that there were three categories of books for young girls: books in which the heroine wore a pink dress; books in which she wore a blue dress; and books in which she wore dungarees. This wasn’t what she had said before when we spoke about children’s books. And it felt as if she had invented these categories on the spot, but everyone then spoke as if these were the established categories, and began to elaborate on some further features of each one.

Inaccuracy, insincerity, inauthenticity: these are the hallmarks of an enjoyable conversation. The three-type theory of children’s literature needn’t be carefully thought-out, accurate, or even sincerely believed – what matters is that it be striking or funny, that it invite listeners to join in with their own examples or qualifications. Nazeer describes this kind of virtuoso performance in almost musical terms: "In a conversation, it isn’t necessary to connect absolutely or in depth with the feelings or views expressed by another. If the theme or subject matter of your story is close enough to the theme of the story told before, you are allowed to tell it. Put a series of these interventions together, come back to one theme, one phrase, or one joke again and again: this is a conversation, it is enjoyable, and it could take up hours."

Nazeer’s startling insight into the mechanisms of conversation arises from the fact that, as an autistic man, he does not instinctively grasp those mechanisms. His impulse is to recognize and reject the falsity of conversation, its tendency towards exaggeration and inaccuracy. Conversation is not a truth-directed activity, he writes – and that’s precisely what makes it creative, inclusive, and entertaining. We’re all making it up as we go along, expanding upon one another’s ideas, tossing the ball back and forth to see who can throw it highest and still catch it behind her back with a rhetorical flourish.

Unlike Nazeer, I do not draw a sharp distinction between truth and entertainment. Good conversation has the capacity to generate ideas, create frameworks within which we can see connections and contrasts that we might otherwise miss. One reason I married my husband is that his dedication to accuracy and moderation exists in constant fruitful tension with my own impulse towards the sweeping statement, the creative generalization. Conversation may not be a truth-directed activity, but (to borrow Mad Hatter’s term), it’s a knowledge-producing one.

Lying is creative, and in that sense, it has the capacity to make things true. One of the sneaky dishonesty-avoiding tricks I learned at an early age is that, when backed into a corner, I can always alter the truth to match what I want to say. If a friend demands to know whether I have a crush on Bobby, and I don’t want to admit that I do, one option would be for me to say "no" – and then to stop liking him. (He was never going to like me back anyway.) Lies are handy that way – and powerful – so I try to choose them carefully.

Monday, March 19, 2007

At the Copa

When I lived in residence during my first year of university, my floor was bisected by a doorway. Even though the door was usually propped open, it created a kind of natural barrier: the five of us who lived to the west of this door developed a friendship marked by our nightly post-supper/pre-studying ritual of playing "Copacabana." (This is one of the things that made university more fun than high school – the increased opportunity for ironic retro-hip Barry Manilow listening.) Friendships in this environment were cemented by location rather than by the careful snubbing of outsiders, and they could be conducted on an order-in rather than a take-out basis: no need for coats and boots or the awkward placing of phone calls – social interaction was, quite literally, at my doorstep.

After graduation, we all moved to opposite ends of the country, meeting every year or so for weddings (a glittering crystal celebration for Italian-born Francesca, a leaf-strewn October ceremony for nature-loving Amanda). Within five years everyone was married off (for the time being at least), which produced a bit of a lull in the annual get-togethers, so we staged a reunion that proved to be memorable for a number of reasons, only one of which was that it was the first time I ever heard the term "vacuum extraction."

Two of my former roommates had recently bought houses, so there was much talk of house prices, mortgage rates, and investments. Other topics of conversation included recipes, military acquaintances, travel anecdotes, and dogs. It wasn’t merely that the incessant small-talk was boring (which it was); the most discouraging part for me was the way an interesting topic might come up briefly – the dirt about marriage, about babies, about teaching a class full of rebellious eighth-graders – and then with a palpable sigh of boredom, someone would intervene to turn the conversation back to mortgage rates. The entire weekend was a slow torture, like trying to speak a foreign language while holding my breath under water. I don't belong here, I kept thinking. I'm not like these people.

One might assume that my friends and I had grown apart, but what struck me most forcibly was how familiar this felt to me, this effort to reshape myself to fit an uncomfortable mold, this need to suppress my natural interests and responses in order to conform to the tastes of the majority. For most of my life, that’s simply what social interaction was. To be sure, I always had one or two friends who belonged to the race that knows Joseph, but in high school two friends are not enough to form the protective posse needed to enter threatening environments like the mall, movie theatre, or school cafeteria. It was always necessary to pay protection money to the Normal People, because the freaks and geeks were both too few in number and too diverse to form a cohesive social group.

The great thing about adulthood is its mobility – nerds like my husband can congregate among their own kind at the local Games Workshop, while nerds like me find themselves taking superfluous arts degrees just for the sake of meeting other similarly disposed former high-school rejects. The internet takes this process a step further, both expanding the field and narrowing it. With a few well-placed search terms, we can find women who speak our language. (It’s no coincidence, I think, that among these women high-school unpopularity seems to function as a kind of secret handshake.) At the local playgroup, I may still feel alienated and alone, but here in the ether, I have found my posse.

Can you handle it if I mention the words "mucous plug"? Will you know what I’m talking about if I compare Starbuck to Captain Janeway? Do you believe it’s possible to be a Christian and read Harry Potter? If I refer to myself as an INFJ will you respond by saying, "Hey! I’m an ENFP!"? Does writing and blog-surfing sound like more fun to you than trading investment tips? Does it strike you as reasonable to use Jane Austen’s novels as a guide to finding the right husband? If I say that having children has persuaded me of the doctrine of Original Sin, will you suppress the urge to report me to the proper authorities?

If you can answer yes to any of the above questions, you are my people. And I’m so glad I’ve finally found you.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Back of the (Upper) Class

(In which I vent some feelings of irritation that – I fully realize – have everything to do with me and very little to do with any of the fine, reflective, socially responsible posts that have been published lately about the nature of the blogging community and its relation to society as a whole.)

There has been a lot of talk around the blogosphere this week about privilege. Bloggers, by and large, are a privileged bunch. We have computers; we have internet access; we have high levels of literacy and (often) high levels of education. We may, of course, also have terrifying amounts of debt, low job security, minimal access to day-care, inadequate parental leave, and impossible choices to make in balancing the demands of motherhood with those of paid employment. We may have debilitating illnesses; our children may struggle with conditions that society has collectively decided not to address because, you know, tax breaks and 6000-seat arenas are more important than special ed or respite care. But we’ve got computers! Not like the less fortunate!

A collective ecstasy of self-recrimination seems to have taken hold, in which we repent of the sin of having a roof over our heads and then pat ourselves on the back for having "acknowledged our privilege." Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against the practice of remembering those less fortunate than ourselves – what rubs me the wrong way is the implication that our level of privilege is somehow intrinsically tied to the worth of what we have to say. If we can just manage to accumulate enough Underprivilege Points, our voices will be really worth hearing. Am I the only one who feels this way? – who feels tempted sometimes to flaunt my student loans and the fact that I’ve never owned a real couch, as if that somehow legitimizes me?

Perhaps, having lived most of my adult life in the academic ivory tower, I am over-exposed to this form of self-flagellation. I go to work and I am surrounded by meditations on the nature of white privilege, upper-class privilege, North American privilege, Western culture privilege. Then I go home. My next door neighbour strikes up a conversation about his recovery from bankruptcy, his son’s ADD, and his wife’s abusive ex. My other next door neighbour stops to chat about his job loss, and his need to cobble together two part-time jobs to keep paying down his mortgage. I go to watch the Survivor finale on a friend’s new big-screen TV and we congratulate her on the fact that her husband is now getting occasional work as a garbage collector (source of surprisingly good Christmas presents – you’d be amazed at what people throw away). I go home, and my 24-inch TV suddenly looks a little smaller.

I don’t know where I fit on the scale of privilege. My husband wears a suit to work. My kitchen table wobbles when I put my elbows on it. I’ve never held a full-time job. I have a car and a house and shoes with scuffs across the toe. I went on a Greek Islands cruise for my honeymoon; I haven’t been on a vacation since then. I have three university degrees; I cried for hours last spring when I got turned down for three part-time jobs, all on the same day. In global terms, I am immensely wealthy; that doesn’t stop me from staying up nights sometimes, worrying about how to make ends meet.

All of these things have the ability to make me feel both proud and ashamed. In some contexts, I might draw attention to my graduate degrees in order to be taken seriously; in others, it might be my lack of disposable income or RRSPs. Both tactics make me feel soiled, slimy.

My sense of self-worth does not depend upon wearing Tommy Hilfiger clothing or driving a Bugaboo stroller. What’s more difficult, sometimes, is to remember that it also doesn’t depend on my faded futon, hand-me-down toys, or as-is Ikea décor. I am not what I own. My loneliness and fear are neither more nor less legitimate than those of the wealthy or the poor. I am privileged – but that doesn’t mean that my problems are not problems, or that there is no value in addressing ideas about motherhood that make me (like all the rest of you) a little crazy sometimes.

Friday, March 16, 2007

BookBub

"Attached to an object (other than a soft toy or blanket)." Last fall, I confidently checked "no" beside that item on the autism checklist – Bub liked to have doggy-and-blankie at bedtime, but aside from that reassuringly normal preference, he showed no unusual attachments. To be sure, he would fixate obsessively on a single toy whenever we went to a playgroup, often playing with it for the full two hours, to the exclusion of any other toys (or children). But it was always out of sight out of mind with him – when it was time to go home, a strategically scheduled sippy cup of juice would detach him, and we were on our way.

His capacity for obsessiveness did reveal itself in other ways, however: for weeks on end, he would request a single video, CD, or book, tiring of it only after he had memorized the entire thing. These fixations always worked in my favour, though: a promise of The Cat in the Hat could lure him out of the bath; a reference to "Fred Penner video" could halt an end-of-the-day tantrum when I picked him up at daycare.

Lately, though, Bub’s attention is fixed, with clear-eyed intensity, on this book:


"Are you talking about Neighborhood Animals, Mama?" he will ask engagingly if I happen to mention a bird or a dog.

"No, actually, I wasn’t," I’ll sigh in response. It hardly matters. The book has not left his hands for more than two minutes this week. It goes to daycare with him; it sits by his plate at mealtimes; if it slips under his pillow during the night he awakens screaming. He has, at least, accepted that it cannot come into the bath with him (after an initial knock-down-drag-out tantrum); now he leaps from the tub and hastens to the bedroom to snatch it up the moment his bath is over, rarely lingering now to watch the water drip from his washcloth until his fingers are wrinkly and shriveled.

Neighborhood Animals has become both entertainment and friend, slipping seamlessly into the place occupied until recently by this book:


The day we borrowed Busy Little Mouse from the library, Bub was entranced: he walked down the mall corridor with his nose buried in the book, giving only enough attention to his surroundings to avoid head-on collisions with oncoming shoppers. My heart contracted with love and recognition. "That’s my boy," I thought.

Three renewals later, I was getting desperate. His obsession showed no signs of waning, and before long the book would have to be returned. You might suppose that the storebought version would be greeted with disdain, a devious impostor posing as the real thing. Not so. Bub accepted the substitution wholeheartedly for the 48 hours it took before the appeal of Busy Little Mouse simply wore off. Busy Little Mouse is so last week; it’s all about the Neighborhood Animals now. I should be grateful for small blessings; this, at least, is a book we already own.

His interest in this book is not only affordable, but it also seems to be expanding his imagination. Bub spends his "quiet time" each afternoon inhabiting the animals he sees, crawling like a ladybug or flying like a bird. He leaps at the chance to don his puppy-dog hooded towel and pant like a dog, his tongue lolling out and his paws held up at almost-canine angles. I’m delighted to see him throwing himself into pretend play this way, pleased to see that even the Pie knows better than to touch the Sacred Book.

But I wonder what anxieties and fears drive him to cling to this book so ceaselessly. I see the panic at the corners of his eyes when the book has to be taken away, even momentarily. I watch him going down the slide in the backyard, book clutched firmly in hand, and I sigh, just a little. That’s my boy.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Recorded Life

I don’t like talking to machines. When an answering machine comes on, I usually hang up. If I’m forced to leave a message, I end up stuttering something unintelligible before shouting, "Talk-to-you-later-bye!" and slamming down the receiver. Thus, one of my least favourite wedding traditions is the roaming videographer who stops at each table and solicits clever greetings for the bride and groom. It’s like signing one of those group cards where you spend ten minutes scratching your head before writing, "Have a great birthday! xoxo." Only worse.

The act of recording something always has the potential to alter or even interfere with the experience itself. The worst case I’ve witnessed was a wedding where the photographer ran out of film during the signing of the register. He instructed the happy couple to "Wait there!" and sprinted out of the church, returning ten minutes later to find the recorded music looping through its third repeat while the guests fidgeted uneasily in their seats.

Even without the involvement of stunningly inept professionals, the need to photograph, video-record, or diarize can subtly alter the way we encounter the experiences so memorialized. At best, it might relieve the pressure: when you’ve spent $800 on yellow freesias and champagne roses, it can be comforting to realize, on the way back to the hotel, that literally hundreds of photographs have captured the beauty that has left nothing more than the faintest of indentations on your short-term memory. At worst, the effort of chronicling an event might prevent one from really living it.

That assumes, of course, that one starts out with an ability to live in the moment – a capacity to set aside one’s detachment, to turn off the interior monologue that constantly transforms experiences into words. Some people – my ex-husband for instance – ardently pursue those "peak" experiences that suspend all conscious thought. I’m not sure that’s an option for me – the urge to analyze, to verbalize, doesn’t seem to have an off-button.

Holding a camera – or picking out words – can actually enhance my awareness, force me to notice the exact aroma of the savoury crepes at a Quebec City creperie, or the unlikely blue of the Mykonos ocean. My default setting is introspection – I slip all too easily into my thoughts, even in the midst of experiences I want to remember. For me, the act of recording an experience often serves to pull me into the moment, anchors me to the physicality of the world, with all its transitory impressions.

My urge to record is strongest when I’m most aware of how quickly an experience is flying by. A vacation, a wedding, a child’s infancy – these things are fleeting, and I stumble through them in a haze of jet-lag, sleep-deprivation, and stress. They are better in retrospect than they are at the time: they are deposits into an account that I will draw from continually in years to come.

Memories are funny things, though – the well-beaten paths of recollection lose some of their freshness over time. I was hunting through a photo box not long ago, searching through all the rejects, the pics that hadn’t been deemed album-worthy. These photos were blurry, cut off – in them my eyes are closed, my smile is crooked, my skin is blotchy and weird. There is little to admire in this hodge-podge of cast-off photos, but flipping through them brought back a visceral recollection of the years they documented. It was not so much that I had forgotten the events they recorded – rather, the photos revived my sense of the physicality of those events. I remembered the grit of sand in my teeth after a windy day at the beach, the dizzy exhaustion of my honeymoon in Greece.

It’s the imperfections that make the remembered experience real; perhaps that’s why blogging works better for me than photography. Instead of lining my family up in front of the Eiffel Tower and waiting until everyone is smiling to snap a pic (hopefully before the Pie sticks up two fingers in a mocking "V" behind her brother’s head, because that’s not nearly as funny as children or my sister think it is), the conventions of blogging allow me to remember the mess alongside the picturesque, the goopy pus along with the startling blue-green of my son’s beautiful eyes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bubbles

The Pie asked for bubbles this afternoon during the pre-supper push-and-shove scream-and-cry festival. Glad enough of a reprieve, I pulled down the bottle, breaking my own rule that bubbles are for outdoor use only. (I’m not sure why I made that rule. Was it concern that bubble film would contaminate my pristine kitchen floor? Unlikely. I may have feared – with some justice – that the demands for "Bubbles!" would become incessant and annoying.)

After two or three quick puffs, both children were shrieking in ecstasy and I had time to sit back and wonder – what is it with children and bubbles? The appeal to parents and caregivers I understand: bubbles aren’t expensive or messy, and above all they pop. It is impossible for siblings to fight over bubbles, impossible to hoard them or engage in impromptu and dangerous bouts of tug-of-war over them.

Bubbles, I realized, are pure Event. Their claim to existence is tenuous – they appear, and within moments they are gone. It is their transitory nature that delights and entertains – they burst into abundance and create a sudden madness of delight. Bubbles represent what C.S. Lewis referred to as Joy: they are about longing and desire, not possession.

My children are still young enough to live in the world of Event. They have some grasp of the concept of possession, but almost no understanding of the idea of ownership. There is "have" and "have not"; there is no "own." That innocence, I know, will be short-lived; before long they will be begging me to buy them toys, drawing distinctions between "borrow" and "buy." Eventually, they will become greedy and acquisitive like the rest of us. By the time I was ten years old, for instance, I was an avid watcher of The Price is Right; I would watch the Showcase Showdown and scoff at contestants who chose the trips over the furniture. Did these people not realize that after a few weeks their trips to Hawaii and Sydney, Australia would be over, but the glories of a brand-new dinette set would live on?

Things last longer than events, and to a ten-year-old that makes them better. It’s difficult to remember that things acquire their value almost entirely through the events that they enable or commemorate. A novel, the reader-response critics remind us, has value because it can be read – it comes into existence only in the act of reading, and the seductive glossy dust jackets merely entrap us into perceiving a book as object rather than event-in-waiting. We buy, we collect, we stack and dust and store – and we seek to understand what things are rather than paying attention to what they do.

Even world travel is susceptible to this impulse to convert Events into Things. We take photographs. We buy Bavarian beer steins and Venetian masks, hoping to stem the constant slippage of time into eternity. The longing for permanence goes hand in hand with impossibility of attaining it. Life, like a bubble, is shiny and incandescent – it enchants us precisely because each time we lift a longing finger up to touch it, it pops.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Asking

A student emailed me yesterday asking for an extension. This doesn’t happen often – my course policy is that each student receives five "grace days" to use anytime during the year, and once those days are used up, late penalties apply. The policy exists precisely to prevent requests like the one I got yesterday, a few days after the essay’s due date, politely explaining that the student (a) wants to do a good job on the essay, and (b) has more important Health Science courses occupying his time. Despite the polite wording, I was irritated by the request. The reason for my irritation, I realized, was that I would have to say no.

Turning down requests is difficult – it violates the code of politeness that dictates that we do our best to fulfill whatever is asked of us. The Code is what motivated my husband, a year or two ago, to pull a toy out of its packaging at the request of a six-year-old visitor. The toy was a gag gift he’d received from his sister the previous Christmas, and when the little girl saw it, she asked if she could play with it. Hubby didn’t really want to remove it from the packaging, but he did so out of a misplaced sense of politeness – misplaced, I would argue, because children are not included in the Code. We are allowed to turn down the requests of children, even children who are not their own. Doing so will not humiliate them: they are accustomed to it and, moreover, they have not yet learned the rules that prohibit such requests and such refusals.

Before we learn the Code, we ask for the things we want. When we see other children eating Oreos in the schoolyard, we go up and ask for one. If the Oreo-eater is especially generous, she may even give us one – but if she wants to eat them all herself, she won’t be afraid of saying so. Gradually, we learn the rules: we notice that people avoid us on the playground if we always mooch their snacks, and so we learn not to ask. Later, we unlearn the skill of saying no; we lose our early experience in playground Oreo-hoarding – we become so unaccustomed to requests that we will give away our last cookie to anyone intrepid enough to ask.

The first step towards Code-obedience is the prohibition against asking; it is only in adulthood that we begin to observe the code of offering, and start offering not only the things we truly want to share, but also the things we think we ought to share, or are expected to share. We pull out our breath-freshening gum at the movie theatre and offer it around, even though there are only three pieces left. If everybody accepts one, we go without and spend the entire movie tasting the after-effects of that potent Caesar’s salad we ate at dinner.

Personally, I have never adopted this code, something I like to remind friends from time to time in order to avoid confusion. Last weekend, for instance, I accompanied a friend to a fund-raising banquet and was absurdly thrilled to win a gift basket of chocolates at the silent auction. As my friend and I drove home I invited her to come in and share my loot. To my disappointment, she declined, but then added, "I don’t want to take your prize – that’s for you to enjoy."

Aha. This was not a true refusal of my hospitality – it was a polite refusal. I pressed again; she declined again; finally, I burst out, "I think you’re forgetting that I never make polite offers. If I want to keep something for myself, I don’t offer it to you!" With her polite reservations swept away, she happily came in for a cup of tea and some raspberry truffles.

I have never really learned the ritual of offer-and-refuse. How many times do you keep offering before you accept a refusal? How do you know that you’re not actually forcing your company on your hapless, exhausted friend who wants nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed? How do you signal the difference between a polite ask-me-again refusal and a genuine one?

For the most part, I am content simply to skip such polite rituals. As a child, I was scornful of the arguments my mother and grandmother would have over who should wash the dishes. "Go sit down," my mother would urge, "you’ve been on your feet all day." My grandmother was not easily persuaded – she would squabble and protest and finally agree to let my mother pick up a tea towel and help dry. The whole performance struck me as utterly absurd.

As an adult, I still prefer directness: if someone offers me something I want, I accept it without the ritualistic test-if-they-really-mean-it refusal; if I make an offer of food or assistance, I hope it will be accepted in turn. To that extent, I’ve remained a child, mystified by the antics of the grown-ups around me. What I have lost, completely, is the childlike directness of asking and refusing. When someone asks me for something, I not only shrink from the task of refusing, but also feel as if a certain boundary has been violated – I rely on the Code to protect me from importunate requests. The request itself produces discomfort and irritation.

Courtesy greases the wheels of social interaction; it creates a buffer around our greed and selfishness, prevents us from pushing and shoving and shouting "Mine!" But it can be a crippling barrier, that buffer – it can prevent us from offering help; it can prevent us from knowing and being known. I was at the bookstore the other day, watching children playing at a Thomas train table, and while I was watching, a three-year-old boy snatched up a train – rather aggressively, I thought – and snarled, "It’s mine!"

"Good job, Dylan!" his mother said warmly – and then looked up to see my stunned expression. "He’s four years old," she explained, "it’s been a long time coming – he’s only just started saying ‘mine.’"

I sat there awhile longer, regretting my momentary lapse into judgment, wanting to talk more to this mother, who looked, somehow, like a kindred spirit. I wondered if it was the pronoun use that had prompted her words of praise, if her son might, like mine, exist somewhere on the borderlands of the autism spectrum. "Tell me about your son," I wanted to say. "How is he doing? What is he like?" And instead, I sat silently, shackled by politeness.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Freebies

"What kinds of fruit will you eat?" Miranda asked. "I want to get something you’ll enjoy." Miranda is one of the mentors participating in the parenting class I’ve been leading Thursday mornings. She hosted a movie night last weekend and was looking for ideas for healthy snacks. The "healthy" part, as it turned out, needed to be interpreted strictly: she had already requested that we bring baked (rather than fried) tortilla chips for the taco dip, and she had quite literally blanched at the suggestion of pop as a potential beverage, settling for chocolate milk when it became apparent that Shonagh would not drink juice.

Shonagh looked a little stumped at the question. "Well, I could eat green grapes," she conceded somewhat reluctantly. "Or – I know – strawberries with lots of whipped cream!"

Just entering her third trimester, Shonagh is one of the neediest women involved in the course. As she put it on the first day of the class, "I’ve probably got more problems than any of the rest of you here." Six months ago, she was drug-addicted and on the street; now she is moving into an apartment and preparing to have her baby. The topic of Thursday’s class was budgeting and frugality, a topic I am even more ill-equipped to teach than usual. With housekeeping and parenting, I can at least say what I’ve tried and how it has worked, but I’ve never been able to stick to a budget, and I’m not especially good at cutting corners. Making a virtue of necessity, I asked everyone to share the areas where money seems to hemorrhage uncontrollably. Groceries, toys, books, Starbucks – these were the main offenders. For Shonagh, however, the problem is Instant Bingo. "What’s the appeal?" I asked. Shonagh shrugged. "I’m pregnant. What else am I going to do?"

As I drove home Thursday morning, I reflected that Shonagh has missed out on her fair share of freebies in life. Freebies are the healthy, educational, thrifty things we do not because we should or must but simply because we want to. My grandmother, for instance, loved eating vegetables. She was obese, and spent most of her senior years in smoke-filled bingo halls, but a lifetime of enthusiastic and wholly voluntary vegetable-eating served her well: she lived past her ninetieth birthday. Vegetables were her freebie – they were good for her, but that’s not why she ate them: she did that because she liked everything about them, their colour, their flavour, and (for many years) the pleasure of growing them in her garden.

For many people, exercise is a freebie: they derive genuine pleasure from a good work-out and miss it when they’re forced to skip going to the gym. I didn’t get the Vegetable Freebie or, alas, the Gym Freebie. I did, at least, get the Fruit Freebie: unlike Shonagh, I’m quite happy to eat most fruits (with or without the whip cream), so long as somebody else goes to the effort of cutting them up (I missed out on the Cooking Freebie, and though I enjoy baking, that particular pleasure is by no means free).

Reading, obviously, is one of my main freebies (at least, it would be free if I used the library instead of Amazon, and if I remembered to return my books on time). The Crossword Freebie is another one (my mom does crosswords for Alzheimer’s prevention; I do them for fun). I think I would consider Housecleaning a freebie – I almost always enjoy cleaning my house, finding the process almost as rewarding as the product. Imposing order on disorder has a certain appeal, and, as I explained to the class during the weeks we spent on housekeeping, the trick is to do it at just the right time: after the house has become noticeably dirty (so as to maximize the contrast), but before the filth has graduated from a low-level annoyance to a source of all-out self-loathing.

Blogging is, I would argue, a freebie: it’s a frugal hobby (cheaper than therapy and cheaper than scrapbooking), and it fulfills needs that might otherwise be pursued through sketchier means (stripping? chocolate-bingeing? Oh wait, I still do that – the chocolate-bingeing, that is). Sleeping is perhaps the ultimate freebie: we love it, we need it, and it’s good for us. Sadly, reading and blogging are not always compatible with sleeping for those of us who are looking to steal time rather than to fill it.

And so, as I try to carve out a space in my life for books and blogs and crosswords, Shonagh is filling in the time until her baby is born, not knowing if she’ll be allowed to keep it, using nachos and bingo cards to keep the terror at bay.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Diary vs. Blog

I’ve been exercising some rusty intellectual muscles lately and attempting to analyze blogging as a genre: what does this format enable us to do? What are its strengths and limitations? In particular, what is its relationship to private diary-keeping?

When Bub was a newborn, I was a zealous diarist, furiously writing my way through the impenetrable mysteries of his behaviour. Why is he waking for the day at 5:30 each morning? What is the impact of an earlier bedtime/later naptime/swaddle/darkening curtain/daylight saving’s time? I jotted down his milestones, attempted to find words to capture the exact shade of his cobalt eyes, and wrote notes to my future self, ready to be used when the Pie was born: remember to try this, remember not to do that.

Blogging has invited me to write differently about motherhood, to delve into its representation in the media, to acknowledge its emotional complexity. The knowledge that you readers are out there permits me to be just a bit more literary in the way I write about my children and about the experience of parenting them – I can experiment with different forms, ranging from magazine interview, to quiz, to research-paper abstract. The blog format allows me to view each post as its own well-wrought urn, that little bit of ivory on which I can work with an often clumsy brush.

When GingaJoy alluded in this post to the visual rhetoric of blog banners, I took a second look at my own: I love my banner (thanks Kristen and John!) – I love the old bricks that would not look out of place in Diagon Alley or at Thornfield Hall, and I love the brightness of the white arching window that says something to me about my incorrigible optimism. Above all, though, I think I was drawn to that particular banner for the same reason that I chose this rather heavy Victorian template several months ago (on the same day I nervously made up a password and decided that "Bub and Pie" would be an alphabetically advantageous name for my blog). Each post is separate, linkable, framed by the arch at the top and the dark brown scrollwork at the side. Framed thus, each post renews the invitation to experiment, to write, to create something new.

For centuries, women writers have worked in genres that allow for brevity: we have written short stories, lyric poems, works that could be squeezed in between the demands of visitors and babies. Brevity is not always my strong suit, as a writer. I struggle with endings, often closing my lectures with a sudden pause followed by an abrupt, "And that’s all I have to say, so I guess you can go home." Blogging forces me to finish, to close – and then it invites me to open again tomorrow, to begin again with something new.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Crying ... Is ... Learning!

"You’ve got a crier, I see," a friend clucked sympathetically when Bub was about five weeks old.

I was, of course, deeply offended by this remark – it interfered with my belief that we were Incredibly Lucky to have the Easiest Baby in the Known Universe. Sure, he was crying – but that was because he was awake. Just give him an hour or so and he’d be sleeping like a baby.

In many ways, Bub was a manageable infant: his cries were rarely inconsolable, and he slept well (until he was ten weeks old, but that’s another story). Nevertheless, as I began to venture out to playgroups and mom-and-baby classes, I started to notice a disturbing phenomenon: freakish angel-babies who would lie contentedly on the floor while their mothers tickled their tummies or wiggled their toes, reciting nursery rhymes and massaging baby oil in soothing patterns. Floortime was not a part of Bub’s repertoire – indeed, he and the floor had only a nodding acquaintance until he began sitting unassisted at six months. These Freak Babies had other amazing powers: one minute they would be sleeping contentedly in their carseats, and the next minute I’d be startled to look over and see a pair of big blue eyes gazing solemnly in my direction. Had these infants somehow missed the memo? Babies are supposed to inform parents of their wakefulness with screams of rage and terror.

When he was awake, crying was Bub’s default setting. When baby books insisted that babies cry for a reason, I knew that in the case of my child the opposite was true: if he was not crying, there was a reason for it: he was being bumped along in the stroller at exactly the right rhythm, or "Baby Beluga" was playing on the tape player, or he was being given the guided tour of the house, looking out with surly, demanding eyes. Any alteration to these measures would be punished promptly.

The rule with Bub was that if the baby isn’t crying, change nothing. Don’t tug down a sleeve, or wipe goo off his face, or turn the lights on or off (a reckless act that will prompt an angry protest to this day). Keep conditions as consistent as possible until further notification.

For those first few months of babyhood, crying is the boss: it is the alarm that signals the end of each break (pee break, lunch break, nap break, shower break). The parent becomes a slave to the crying, but also a deadly opponent to it: my job, 24-hours-a-day, was to prevent, address, and eliminate crying.

I wonder to what extent that early apprenticeship in parenthood has altered my response to my children now that they’re no longer babies. All adults will respond to an infant’s cries with signs of stress – an increased heartrate, a rise in body temperature. If that baby is our own, the level of stress is multiplied. Nevertheless, I have noticed that not all parents seem to hyperventilate quite as quickly as I do when their children burst into tears. When I dropped off my kids at day-care the other day, an altercation broke out over possession of a toy. There was some pushing and shoving, some wailing and screaming, and when it subsided after a minute or two, I was on the verge of a panic attack: my heart was racing, my breaths were shallow, and I felt like I needed to lie down for about a week. My day-care provider, on the other hand, was grinning sheepishly – she didn’t enjoy the outburst, but she remained calm through it. (This helps explain, I think, why she’s capable of doing her job without checking herself into the nearest psychiatric facility.)

When my children aren’t crying, I feel like a successful parent: I have done a good job with them already (in that my children are pleasant, adaptable, well-adjusted creatures), and I am doing a good job right now (in that I’m providing them with activities they enjoy). The crying, on the other hand, floods me with a sense of failure. Toddler crying is very different from baby crying – it makes sense, at least some of the time, and it’s a necessary part of testing their limits and acquiring emotional maturity. Somehow, though, that knowledge doesn’t entirely short-circuit the cascade of guilt, shame, and panic that accompanies a real blow-out tantrum from one or both of my children.

So I’m trying to change my attitude. Various people over the years have attempted to cure me of my bee phobia using handy catch-phrases: these are fuzzy, buzzy, dozy, cozy, friendly, gentle bees. Bees make honey. Bees are my friends. Bees are living the way nature intends. So far that approach has been entirely ineffective in relieving my fear of bees, but I won’t let that stop me from hoping it will work for the crying. Crying is my friend. Crying is healthy, crying is good, crying is best when you’re in the mood. Humph. Maybe I’ll try this one: Crying Is Learning!

My local public television station airs children’s programming throughout the day, punctuated by educational interludes hosted by Polkaroo. The theme of these interludes is that playing is learning – each one focuses on a particular kind of game or activity with a childishly enthusiastic narrative voice-over describing the educational benefits. (The content, I presume, is aimed at parents, unless the purpose of these segments is to sap all the joy from ordinary playful pursuits by persuading children to look upon them as exercises in self-improvement.) At the end of each segment, children shout joyfully, "Painting! (or Dancing!, or Reading!) Is! Learning!"

Following Polkaroo’s example, then, I present to you the following educational benefits of crying. When my children cry, they learn…

  • The power of the veto. A good cry won’t get you back that Bailey’s-filled-chocolate you swiped from the kitchen counter, and it won’t give you access to that shiny new knife you want to play with, but it might buy you a few extra minutes in a poopy diaper before you have to submit to the indignity of a diaper change.
  • The down side of being reasonable. When it comes to choosing a video or DVD, it pays to be stubborn. If you want to watch Wallace and Gromit penguin, and your brother wants to watch Wallace and Gromit sheep, your sunny, flexible personality works against you: nine times out of ten the sheep win out and the penguin languishes in the corner.
  • The up side of being reasonable. Mom holds the ultimate veto power, so if you insist on watching Wallace and Gromit rabbit, and only Wallace and Gromit rabbit (knowing full well that it’s a full-length feature film rather than a 30-minute video), you just might end up watching nothing at all.
  • The down side of being a comedian. If you punctuate your crying with a sudden rush forward – stomp, stomp, stomp – and a dramatic fall to your knees (followed by a quick check to gauge the effectiveness of your manoeuver), you might find that you get rewarded with laughter rather than an extra bowl of Shreddies before supper. And that goes double if your sister responds with spot-on mimicry of your body language and facial expression. (Fortunately, neither child shows any sign of actually learning this lesson – both of them vastly overestimate the irritation- and/or guilt-producing properties of this particular spectacle.)
  • That good things come to those who wait. Crying might help pass the time while the macaroni cooks on the stove, but it won’t get that mac-and-cheese on your plate any sooner.
  • That crying can be a two-faced ally. When it’s time to go down for a nap, the harder you cry, the quicker you fall asleep. (Some of the time at least, you see, crying really is my friend.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Five Reasons

…why I blog.

I was so excited when Momish tagged me for the latest "five reasons" meme – but now that I’m trying to do it, I’m overcome with a Bloomian sense of belatedness. There is nothing new for me to say, no way for me to break out from the shadow of the giants who have gone before me. So I’ve decided to stop fighting it and simply steal ideas from my betters. Here is why I keep showing up around here in the blogosphere:

1) The Delights of Anticipation. Gwen described this one far better than I ever could, so I’ll just shamelessly quote her entire paragraph:

Once I watched this awful, Ritz cracker of a horror movie about innocuous household appliances run horribly amok (and we say the film industry doesn’t know how to give the people what they want. But evil lamps! What could be better?). Someone would walk innocently by the toaster and next thing you know, his hand would be holding a fork and the fork would be shimmering its way towards the metal slots and then BAM! Electrocution! I don’t know the name of the movie or when I saw it or even how the evil current was brought under control. But one of the appliances that turned dangerous was the garbage disposal. A routine dish washing would result in bloody stumps. Every single time I stick my hand down my own disposal now to pull out a lemon or extract a teaspoon, I half wonder if maybe this time the blades will go Andrew Cunanan and attack me. Every time.

That’s why I blog; because every post brings with it the possibility of some great and completely unexpected, yet oh so dramatic, outcome.

(Now go read her whole post; it’s better than mine.)

2) Increasing my Slang Vocabulary. If it weren’t for blogging, I wouldn’t even know the word "asshat." (Seriously? The one brand-new, kind-of-funny idea I had for this post was to remark on how glad I am that I blog so that I can learn words like asshat – only to find that Sage beat me to it in her post this morning.)

3) Needed Injection of Sanity. To see the blogosphere at its best, go read this post, and the comments. It redeems my faith in momkind to know that we can talk about sleep-deprivation and crying babies without judgment, that we can give advice without preaching, that we can break the stranglehold the so-called experts have on us and really communicate.

4) Compliments. No linkage here. I’ll just come out and say it: I’m in it for the compliments. Feel free to send some my way. (And while we're on the topic, does anyone else have a broken SiteMeter? Mine says I've received no visits since yesterday at 6 am, confirming my suspicion that none of you actually exist, and all my comments are being written by Jessica, my evil alternate personality.)

5) I Blog Therefore I Am. Yes, blogging is a kind of online baby book, and yes, it’s a creative outlet – but more than that, blogging is how I have figured myself out, now that motherhood has taken everything I was and altered it out of all recognition. As Lawyer Mama puts it, "motherhood, and the way it elementally changes you, is scary as hell. And so we write about it." (Sing it, sistah!)

And now that I’m overcome with anxiety about my utter inability to say anything original in response to this meme, I’ll invent my own counterpart to it:

Five Things that are NOT the Reason I Blog:

1) To prove my trendiness by showing off my fashionably clad babies.
2) To gain helpful tips on the One Best Way to parent.
3) To record every single cute thing that comes out of my children’s mouths (though I do save some up for you guys occasionally, ’cause I know how much you love them).
4) To make up for my lack of success in all others spheres of life (well, okay, that one kind of is why I blog…).
5) To avoid spending time with my husband and children. (That’s a side effect, not a motive.)

I tag Mimi, Mama Thoughts – Sarah, and Planet Nomad. Why do you blog?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What to Expect...

…the first week.

In response to Kyla’s call for the truth about motherhood, we present this interview with noted baby expert Florence Liesalot and two-time mother BubandPie, who share their advice for moms of newborns.

What should moms expect during the first week?
FL:
You can expect your baby to be very drowsy, sleeping for 16-20 hours per day. Don’t worry! It’s normal to sleep a lot, though you may have to get creative to keep baby awake long enough to nurse.

BP: [matching Florence’s chirpy tone] Right. That could happen. Or, on the other hand, your baby might be born a week past his due date. At this stage of gestation, you can expect the drowsiness to last approximately twelve hours, wearing off in sync with your post-partum adrenaline surge. Just as you’re sinking under a tidal wave of exhaustion, the baby may wake up and start crying. Don’t worry! The crying should ease up when your milk supply increases (four or five days later).

Can you explain the role of colostrum?
FL:
Colostrum is liquid gold: it will sustain the baby admirably until your milk comes in. Don’t worry – during this time baby will not be hungry, because nature has designed this "liquid gold" to meet all his nutritional needs.

BP: Despite the famous nutritional properties of colostrum, you may find that your baby nurses for an hour, then screams in frustration, rooting around and looking for more. After four days, you may be concerned that your milk is not coming in. Don’t worry! Your milk will come in eventually (perhaps even causing massive and painful engorgement), and in the meantime you can either listen to your starving baby scream in desperation, or you can supplement with formula.

If supplementation is necessary, how should it be carried out?
FL:
Supplementation should be avoided wherever possible, since it may compromise the supply-and-demand of breastfeeding, putting the child at risk for the possible loss of several valuable I.Q. points. If you must supplement, avoid bottles at all costs – instead, feed the baby from a cup held gently to the lips.

BP: While supplementation has the benefit of easing your starving baby’s hunger, each method of delivery has its drawbacks. Try alternating between cups of formula (which the thrashing baby will scatter everywhere) and bottles (the sight of which may initiate a panic attack as you prepare to kiss your breastfeeding relationship goodbye).

What emotions can a new mother expect to experience?
FL:
As a mother, you will experience a love unlike anything you’ve ever felt before. Just gazing into the face of your newborn child will be an incredibly meaningful, euphoric experience.

BP: Right. That may happen. Or, on the other hand, you may find that gazing into the face of your hungry, crying child floods you with feelings of inadequacy deeper than any you’ve experienced before.

What about the mother’s physical recovery from childbirth?
FL:
You can expect some discharge of blood during the first few days, fading gradually to pink with no large clots.

BP: Be sure to stock up on the giant, inch-thick pads from the hospital: for the first week, you’ll be dealing with a torrential flow that no commercially marketed maxi-pad can possibly absorb. If the clots are any larger than a tangerine, you may want to call a public health nurse for reassurance (grape- or clementine-sized clots are no problem).

How should mothers deal with the challenges of nursing?
FL:
You may experience some discomfort while nursing for the first few days. Be sure to allow your nipples to dry out in the air until they’ve adjusted to the demands of nursing. Although some women use lanolin-based products to ease discomfort, no long-term studies have been done to prove that these are safe for the baby to ingest. Why take the risk?

BP: [becoming agitated] Why take the risk? Why take the risk? I had a shrieking baby who sucked me dry in two days, with no drop of milk in sight, I had a freaking Vesuvius running down my legs every time I stood up, my nipples were dry and cracking and don’t even get me started on the subject of stool softeners! Hand over the Lansinoh and the dark beer, lady, and take your advice to someone who cares.

(Although BubandPie’s youngest child is more than a year old, the effort of recalling the early days of motherhood appears to have precipitated some kind of emotional crisis. Psychologists are standing by, ready to intervene if necessary.)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

A Wee Nerd-Fest

Here’s my thesis for this particular blog post: Battlestar Galactica is a romance; The Time Traveler’s Wife is not.

(For those of you checking your syllabus anxiously, Marriage 101 is down the hall on the right; History of Parenting 200 is upstairs; if you registered for Obscure Pop Culture Random Theories 480, you’re in the right place.)

Okay, now that those who were in the wrong room have left, the rest of us can get down to work. Battlestar Galactica is often mistaken for a sci-fi series: it is set in the far future, depicts warfare in outer space, and focuses on the conflict between humanity and a race of sentient robots called the Cylons. Though not quite an allegory of recent political events, the series seldom overlooks an opportunity to skewer the ham-fisted foreign policies of the current President and his cohorts – the characters, both human and Cylon, not infrequently find themselves wielding power in well-intentioned but disastrous ways, riding roughshod over basic human rights, attempting to achieve peace through invasion and oppression. The nature of evil in this series is that everyone is a George W. waiting to happen.

Political jabs are never the main point of the series, though, and neither are the various plot arcs involving individual characters. Helo’s love for Sharon, Starbuck’s self-destructive proclivities, Lee’s bizarre weight-gain issues – none of these are as interesting as the central romance between humans and the Cylon. Like Mr. Darcy, the Cylons are dauntingly powerful, and their aggression conceals a palpable longing: they have recreated themselves in human form, and they fall in love, over and over again, with human beings – they call themselves the children of humanity and exhibit an Oedipal conflict between their attraction to the parent race and their need to destroy it.

The humans, on the other hand, are like Elizabeth Bennet, defensive, oblivious: unlike the viewers and perhaps even the Cylons themselves, they do not realize that their happy ending must involve union with their perceived enemy. For that to happen, the Cylons must be humbled, must learn to shed their power advantage, and humans must overcome the prejudice that drives them to use epithets like "toaster" (a word that we can already recognize as an unsayably racist term, something that future generations will refer to with a shudder as the "t-word," evidence of the benighted prejudices of their forebears). Cylon and human circle one another warily, needing to trust one another and unsure of how to achieve that across the boundaries that divide them.

Like any romance, Battlestar Galactica alternates between exciting relationship-advancing episodes and those that focus on the more prosaic day-to-day life of a battlestar crew. Just when the romantic tension is at its highest point, Lizzie goes home to deal – interminably – with Lydia’s elopement and its fallout; the humans get back to the ship and negotiate with restive labour unions while viewers yawn and wait for the romantic hero to return, dangerous yet attractive, so that the story can proceed.

Romance is about attraction and mistrust, about the process by which a threatening stranger becomes an intimate companion. It’s about curiosity, fear, and longing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is not a romance. (I don't mean that as a criticism, mind you – it’s a book that kept me up well past midnight last night, and you know that a book good enough to keep me from the precious precious sleep is a rare find.) The novel is, I will concede, a love story, a celebration of fidelity, but it bypasses all the usual romance conventions: in the opening pages, Henry (the time-traveling hero) sees Clare for the first time. She is looking at him with her heart in her eyes; she has known him since she was six years old and he recognizes instantly that she is his future, as he is her past. There is no distrust; there is no courtship – just this moment of recognition and belonging.

Instead of being fuelled by romance, the emotional impact of this novel is similar to that of the best fantasy novels (in my subjective opinion, that is, based on my admittedly limited experience with the fantasy genre). The appeal of fantasy, my husband once explained to me, is the thrill of identifying with a powerful hero. That struck me at the time as a rather pathetic reason to read a book. But in the best fantasies, the hero is not simply powerful – he has a power that both causes and is caused by suffering. The fantasy hero has abilities that are strange and mysterious, even within the fictional frame – they set him apart not as a Gandalf figure of wizardry but rather as one marked out for suffering. He is at once a vulnerable child and a man of greater breadth and depth than the comfortable, privileged mortals around him.

In The Time Traveler’s Wife, the moments of highest tension and satisfaction occur not from Henry’s interactions with Clare but rather from the occasions when his time-travel abilities are revealed to his contemptuous – and then amazed – acquaintances and co-workers. I never stopped enjoying the way these characters move from suspicion to awe as they realize that Henry isn’t lying or crazy – he really does move involuntarily through time. He is set apart from the rest of humanity, and Clare is his tether to a world in which he does not truly belong.

A leitmotif that runs through the book is the analogy to Penelope and Odysseus. Clare is an artist, weaving her tapestries while Henry suffers his terrible adventures. When I first read The Odyssey a few years ago, I was taken aback by how much time the hero spends sobbing. Odysseus, like Henry, is a man marked by suffering, one who is greater than other men because he has suffered more than they. Where romance novels are about a coming-together of hero and heroine, The Time-Traveler’s Wife and The Odyssey are about marriage – about enduring together through the infinite distances that divide us.