Sunday, April 29, 2007

Driving Home

My sister came up with a project the other day: a list of all the songs she and her various ex-boyfriends had selected as "their" song. Her favourites included such romantic musical gems as "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" by Bryan Adams and "Picture" by Sheryl Crow and Kid Rock, and the purpose of the list was to prevent her from accidentally repeating any of these selections with her future boyfriends. (I was obviously asleep at the switch when this conversation occurred, because I somehow failed to notice the conclusive evidence that the jerk she’s been hanging around with lately as "just a friend" had become Something More. All you need to know about this guy, really, is that when offered the opportunity to select "their" song, he chose "Discovery Channel" by the Bloodhound Gang.)

Aunt Caffern’s list does a lot to explain why it’s so difficult to come up with wedding songs. All the best love songs are break-up songs; anguish and abandonment translate so much better into music than happiness and infatuation. To wit, one of my favourite mixed CDs is a melancholy mix featuring pensive, sad pieces by Dido, The Cure, Coldplay, U2, and even the Barenaked Ladies (in their quieter moments). It’s a great one to flip into the CD player on a sunny day when your heart is light, and an even better one for heavy days when the knot in your chest needs to be loosened by a few cleansing tears.

Listening to it today, though, as I drove home from a fabulous bloggy get-together that had brushed all the cobwebs out of my cobwebby soul, I noticed a pattern I had overlooked before. Instead of singing about rejection and heartbreak, men often sing about another kind of loss:

If I could read your mind love
What a tale your thoughts could tell
Just like a paperback novel,
The kind that drugstores sell
When you reach the part
Where the heartache comes
The hero would be me.
Heroes often fail…
I never thought I could act this way
And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it
I don’t know where we went wrong
But the feeling’s gone
And I just can’t get it back.

Makes me cry every time, that song. But Gordon Lightfoot isn’t the only one mourning lost love and yet paralyzed by shame because he’s the one who’s leaving. "It’s not cause I’ll be missing you that makes me fall apart," Steven Page wails, "It’s just that I didn’t mean to break, no I didn’t mean to break your heart." "Elise, believe I never wanted this," Robert Smith murmurs, "I thought this time I’d keep all of my promises. I thought you were the girl I always dreamed about, but I let the dream go, and the promises broke and the make-believe ran out…"

Failure and shame are the common threads running through these anguished songs, and it occurred to me that while women like Dido sing of unrequited love, of clinging faithfully to the one who abandoned them, these men are singing of what for them is the worst kind of heartbreak – the kind that’s all their fault.

When my melancholy CD was done, I popped in U2’s "Window in the Skies," a single-CD, just long enough to wind me through my subdivision and back home. Like all U2’s songs, it is a gospel anthem, thinly or not-so-thinly disguised. I am not a hand-waver in church, but when I’m driving in my car on a sunny Sunday morning with Bono’s tenor voice booming in my speakers, I’m capable of waving my hands like a Pentecostal at a revival meeting. "Oh, can’t you see what love has done?" Bono asks. "I’ve got no shame, oh no, oh no, Oh, can’t you see what love has done, what it’s doing to me? Oh I know I hurt you and I made you cry, did everything but murder you and I, but love made a window in the skies."

I’ve got no shame, he says. That’s a phrase we don’t usually use in a positive way, but as a commentary on forgiveness (both human and divine) it is surprisingly apt.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

My Boy

"Hnnnnnnn." I make a machine-like humming sound. I am a capture-machine, a tickle-machine, and Bub falls into my pincer-like arms, twisting and giggling.

We are on the floor by the kitchen-table. From this vantage point I can see hardened corn kernels and chick peas, the crumbs from breakfast and last night’s supper clustering around chair legs, hiding from the casual sweep of the broom. Pie clambers under the table and shuffles along on her bum, wedging herself under a chair and then out again. It’s a joke, a game, like everything she does when sickness isn’t suppressing her natural mischief. Her upper lip is still shiny with snot, but her eyes twinkle as she announces, "Funny!" and Bub follows her lead. For the time being, she is friend and ally rather than rival and marauder.

As Bub bum-shuffles under the chair and then hurls himself back into the tickle-machine, the love I feel for him is comfortable and comforting. It doesn’t demand anything of me but instead offers a kind of absolution: he is a beautiful boy, not a monster of my own creation. He is loving and innocent, not a figure from a cautionary tale against the dangers of lax and undisciplined parenting ("The Story of Bub, Who Perished in Painful Agonies Because He Wouldn’t Put On His Shoes").

It’s not unconnected to his new outfit, this sudden upsurge of affection. He’s wearing big-boy clothes today, size 4-T, rough-and-tumble clothes of sturdy brown corduroy and dark red trim. They are clothes for the boy he is becoming, one who can do it by himself, who can climb up to the top of the slide without anyone hovering anxiously to prevent him from stepping into thin air. He’s a boy who answers, "No way!" when asked to do something – and then does it anyway. He’s a boy who barks, "Mama to lie down on the bed!" as I tuck him in, and then turns his head toward mine to gaze into my eyes. His expression is searching, thoughtful, and utterly defenseless.

 
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Friday, April 27, 2007

Am I The Only One?

  • …who feels uncomfortably sorry for the ants who are gobbling down Ant-B-Gone in my kitchen cupboards, carrying home a bellyful of poison for the benefit of their entire colony? (It doesn’t help when hubby puts down the poison saying, "Here’s a little treat! Mmmmm…lucky!")

  • …who initiates sex by glaring in hubby’s general direction and grumbling, "You sure aren’t interested much lately." (Why seduce when you can complain?)

  • …who develops a new and confusing disciplinary regime at playgroup, because the usual "Let’s play tag when Bub steals your toys!" tactic may not fly with the other parents? (Loss of consistency and fairness is a small price to pay for the appearance of consistency and fairness.)

  • ...who finds that yesterday's breakthrough parenting advice ("Never do for your children what they can do for themselves") has somehow become today's source of inadequacy and rage? (Just because Bub can put his shoes and coat on doesn't mean that he will, especially when he would much rather stay and continue throwing Magnetix and screaming.)

  • …who almost cries when the playgroup coordinator approaches to say, "You’re so patient with him!" as I drag Bub away, having retrieved the book and shoes that he has thrown at other children because I had the audacity to tell him it was time to leave? (What looks like patience from the outside feels like passive ineffectiveness from the inside.)

  • …who finds that when my children spill their snacks all over aisle 7 at the grocery store, it’s invariably in front of a former student (now a charity fundraiser often featured in the local newspaper) and her beautifully dressed and perfectly well-behaved toddler?

  • …who feels unreasonably pleased when my son asks, in a warmly supportive tone, "Are you frustrated, Mama?" (Unreasonably because what he almost certainly meant by that was "I’m frustrated, Mama!" – but I’ll take my sympathy where I can get it.)

  • …who writes random list-based posts when suffering from blogger’s block and exhausted from a rare Friday morning with the kids?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thanks for Stopping By (But Don't Come Again)

Since I got rid of word verification, I’ve been visited occasionally by anonymous commenters who say encouraging, but weirdly self-parodic things like "What a great site," "Nice info," or "Keep it up." Sometimes they ask oddly irrelevant questions like "Where did you find it?" while other times they appear to speak English as a second language: "You have an outstanding good and well structured site." (Is "outstanding" meant to be an adverb in that sentence? Or is there just a missing comma?)

I appreciate a good compliment, especially on older posts (these anonymous visitors have a special preference for my first month or two of blogging). But do they really think I won’t notice that their comments are punctuated by links to cheap Ritalin and transvestite lingerie?

As a public service to these pleasant and honey-tongued folks, I’d like to point out that if I were to seek liposuction, I’d be wary of any place that promises to do it for free (and I’d recommend that my readers do the same).

These comments are not without their uses, though, even if they are a little too niche-specific. If anyone is looking for Catholic license plate frames, for instance, or has food allergies related to enlarged taste buds, I am now in a position to give you a heads up on where to go.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Seven Days in 1984

I’m stuck. The yawning caverns of my mind are utterly devoid of cute anecdotes, angry rants, and random theories. I have little choice other than to inflict upon you another post culled from my juvenile diaries. Picture if you will a green duotang containing several closely-written sheets of three-ring paper from a time when I was
(a) thirteen years old,
(b) obsessed with marks and popularity (two more-or-less irreconcilable goals), and
(c) unduly influenced by the stylings of Ellen Conford after reading her novel, Seven Days to a Brand-New Me.

DAY ONE: Take stock.

Today in school I interacted with:
*Rhonda
(Laura)
!!!Michael!!!
(Tracey)
(Carolyn)
*Chris
!!!Mary!!!
(Jennifer J.)
*Bobby
*Jennifer S.
!!!Kristine!!!

LEGEND:
*people I talked to without mentioning MARKS
(people I talked to and mentioned something OTHER than marks)
!!!people I talked to ONLY about MARKS!!!

Day One was actually a pretty neat day. I enjoyed it. We got our English tests back (MARKS) and I got 85%. Marks are interesting though. Kristine got 87%, Laura got 84%, and Jennifer wasn’t telling which is a good sign.

DAY TWO: Picture the NEW ME. What did I learn from Day One?

Well, I learned that I want to be able to strike up interesting conversations about things other than MARKS by myself, instead of waiting for other people to seek me out. Kristine came up and spoke to me twice. Both times she had something to say. Now if she would do that, I can safely deduct that she doesn’t hate the sight of me. She’s a perfect candidate for someone to suddenly be FRIENDLY to. Besides that, she’s popular.

There’s one SMALL catch. I have nothing to SAY, except of course to talk about MARKS, the only subject I’m really COMFORTABLE with. That’s out of the question. I’ve already learned the hard way that she and Jen J. hate people hounding them for MARKS. They already both think I’m MARKS-CRAZY.

Best conversation from Day Two: Before choir, a bunch of people went to our room to get our music books. Just as we were leaving a stream of grade sevens went past. Bobby sat down on the teacher’s desk and chanted, "Don’t just sit there, get up and move!" a line from "Rock You." He saw me looking at him and said, "know what song that’s from, Bubandpie?" in a sort of way that he wasn’t really asking, he didn’t really care.

Of course I knew, but it was easier to say, "No."

"Do you know what the latest song from Twisted Sister is?" he asked.

"No." I knew that too.

"Do you know what the second-latest song from Twisted Sister is?"

"No." I knew THAT too.

"Do you know who Twisted Sister is?"

"No." EVERYONE knows who Twisted Sister is. I said this to Laura, and Bobby overheard and said:

"Then why don’t you?"

I looked at Laura in exasperation.

"She’s joking," Laura said in a voice implying ‘you dummy.’

"Bubandpie joking!" he exclaimed in mock astonishment, "Bubandpie never jokes, serious, brainy Bubandpie!" Paul, who had been listening to this interchange put in, "Bubandpie with a sense of humour is like a, like a…"

"Like a fish without water," I finished.

DAY THREE: Key Words: CONFIDENCE, FLAMBOYANCE, FUN

Okay, so maybe Day Three wasn’t an A+ day, a rip-roaring success. So maybe I didn’t talk to a Grade Seven, Danny, Helen, Peter, or Scott. I still had quite a few neat little interchanges with lots of interesting people. And, strangely, I ENJOYED today more than yesterday.

One conclusion can be drawn from this. I like being the OLD ME, plus a little CONFIDENCE, FUN, and FLAMBOYANCE, better than being the NEW ME with only a small touch of the OLD ME left behind.

Another conclusion I discovered today is totally unrelated to the effects of my SEVEN DAY PLAN. We were standing in line at the end of morning recess and suddenly Danny bumped into me and almost knocked me down. (I think Dale pushed him.) Anyway, after that I watched him for a little while and suddenly I knew I DID NOT LIKE DANNY! Even now I still don’t. I like him as a PERSON, but not as a BOY!!!

DAY FOUR:
Home sick. At school others get Math tests back.
Jennifer J. – 81/88
Rhonda – 74/88
Laura – 76/88
Carolyn – 83/88 (she’s no threat anyway, though)

DAY FIVE:
Even I can see that I’m having an old me day. That’s okay, though, it’s probably because I’m a little tired after being sick. In guidance we got our SGIS things back, those career description things. Mine was literary writer, which is EXACKITACKILY what I want. Bobby and I had a long conversation about what I would do if all my books were flops. I got 84/88 on my Math test (highest mark in the class) and 54/55 on my History exam. Laura got 55/55, but I beat her overall in History anyway.

DAY SIX:
I finally decided that I would go to the school dance. I wore my jeans, my white blouse, and Mom’s red argyle vest. The music was really loud, so you could barely hear when someone talked to you, unless they yelled. At about ten to eight, on the third or fourth slow dance, Bobby came and tapped me on the shoulder.

"Bubandpie, want to dance?" he asked. I was SOOOO SURPRISED!!! The song was almost over so our dance was short (was there a reason for that???), but it was long enough for me to figure out that he was a terrific dancer, at least in comparison to Danny. Danny asked me to dance later on in the evening, but although I’m flattered, I really don’t care. Danny is a TERRIBLE dancer. He keeps turning. It’s kind of funny, that no one has ever asked me to dance before, and suddenly TWO people do in one evening. Laura says it’s because of the SEVEN DAY PLAN.

DAY SEVEN:
I’ve thought of tons of reasons why Bobby asked me to dance.

1) He’s on students’ council so at a students’ council dance he has to socialize and dance with the people who are otherwise wallflowers.
2) He wants to dance with all the girls in the class, so he’s going alphabetically.
3) Someone dared him to.
4) He knew I’d be sure to jump at him.
5) He felt like dancing, so on the spur of the moment he asked me because I was the first person he happened to see.
6) He likes me just a little bit.

The only thing I know for sure is that I’m madly in love with him.

*****

Upon mature reflection, I think the answer was probably (1) and (6). This particular diary and takes up ten sheets of three-ring paper (eleven if you include the addendum, a set of pithy descriptions of all the kids in my class). I’ve edited it down, but I made sure to include all my marks – because, you know, those are the really important things to preserve for posterity.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Grump

The worst part about being grumpy and hormonal is the sheer effort required to contain the bitchiness. My head is pounding with the internal pressure of all the mean things I want to say. After letting slip a viciously sarcastic inquiry as to why hubby ran the dishwasher last night even though the bottom rack still contained three empty slots, I devoted the rest of my energy this morning to closing my mouth around acrid-tasting inquiries about when he was going to attend to the Christmas lights still strung along our roof, the ant infestation in my kitchen, or the perennially postponed yard work.

The wonderful thing about attending church, though, is that it turns my wrath away from my innocent husband and focuses it instead on the homicidally irritating woman who intones "Amen!" after each of the pastor’s utterances. Instead of composing honey-do lists and drenching them in acid, I spent the service mentally rehearsing a scene involving that woman and myself and featuring smashed heads, bloody noses, and appalled witnesses.

Today is the kind of day that comes along only two or three times a year. My windows are thrown open to admit birdsong and breezes; the trees in the front yard are tipped with the first unfurling newborn leaves. It’s a day for sunscreen and sandboxes, wagon rides and long line-ups at Dairy Queen. And I’m spending it like this:


Do ovulation hormones combined with the missed delivery of the Sunday paper – and crossword – entitle me to a nap, a mud pie Blizzard, and a good long pity party?

Friday, April 20, 2007

My Body, My Self

I’ve always enjoyed looking at myself in the mirror. As a child, I hurried to the mirror anytime I cried, fascinated by the creeping red blotchiness, the suddenly vivid green of my bloodshot eyes. There was a kind of fusion of the inner and outer selves, my nebulous emotions suddenly made tangible in the outpouring of tears and snot that I’d watch myself wipe lovingly away.


Everything about my physical appearance has always felt right to me. I have dark hair, like Jane Eyre, Laura Ingalls, or Maggie Tulliver. Smart girls in fiction are always small and dark, always prettier than they realize even without the yellow ringlets sported by flashier rivals like Blanche Ingram or Nellie Olson. With brown hair and glasses, a book tucked perennially under my arm, I always felt like a Norman Rockwell painting; I barely needed the floral-print dresses to convey my old-fashioned-girl status.

I am equally contented with my flaws. My skin is pale, almost transparent; I never tan and I freckle easily. Bub has the same luminous, ghost-like skin, innocent of freckles, though perhaps this summer will throw the first smattering across his nose, snatching my baby away for good. Pie, on the other hand, has her father’s skin: olive-toned, capable of tanning deeply. Beside her brother she looks almost orange – as she splashes in the bathtub I look at her creamy skin and wonder if I’ve been feeding her too many sweet potatoes. I imagine her as a popular, sporty teenager, emphatically not-me with curly hair and long, tanned legs. I won’t have to give her moisturizer or Sally Hansen Crème Bleach as my mother did to me; I won’t counsel her to choose colours with blue undertones, sharing my palette of black and scarlet, white and navy blue.

Most of my life I have been thin, but with a body that doesn’t wear thinness well. I am a pear; even at my skinniest my thighs have always met in the middle. But I like the squareness of my shoulders, the slenderness of my wrists. Since the Pie was born, I’ve had time to get used to my evolving shape, the weird wrinkly feeling in my back when I twist or bend, the bulgy, cushiony bit above my waistline, a phantom womb outlined on my body.

I hide from mirrors now, carefully arranging myself each morning before inspecting my outfit, making sure my shirt is long enough to tug down past my waistline, never glancing at my reflection as I sit down to pull on a sock. I feel vaguely convinced that if I never look at myself from certain angles, nobody else will either.

But for all that, I still feel as though I look like what I am. Smart. Nice. A mom. Someone who prefers reading to jogging and won’t say no to a second brownie. Someone whose fashion sense is still more Anne of Green Gables than Christina Aguilera. Somebody more-or-less comfortable in her own pale, freckled, manifestly imperfect skin.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Forgiveness

[Jo] felt so deeply injured that she really couldn’t quite forgive yet. So she winked hard, shook her head, and said gruffly, because Amy was listening: "It was an abominable thing, and she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven."
… Amy was much offended that her overtures of peace had been repulsed, and began to wish she had not humbled herself, to feel more injured than ever, and to plume herself on her superior virtue in a way which was particularly exasperating.
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women)

In L.M. Montgomery’s Emily Climbs, Emily Starr (formerly of New Moon) goes to live with her strict, respectable, and utterly unimaginative Aunt Ruth Dutton. A measure of Aunt Ruth’s narrow-mindedness is her propensity to "forgive" Emily for a variety of imagined offenses, such as sitting in the corner of the church pew or spilling a pot of ink. "I’ll forgive you this time," she sniffs disdainfully, "but don’t let it happen again."

For an act associated with grace, forgiveness has a reputation for being offered – or demanded – most ungraciously. Today’s roundtable on forgiveness and justice bears witness to how complex, and variously understood, the concept of forgiveness can be. Gwen quotes the Hindu perspective from which forgiveness appears fundamentally cruel, a burden tied to the backs of those who are already stumbling under the weight of suffering and victimization. Jen, on the other hand, talks about the arrogance of forgiveness, the assumption of judgment and superiority that is necessarily involved in the act of granting absolution.

"Ninety percent of the Christian walk is forgiveness," a wise woman once told me. Forgiveness is an essential component to my faith, and as such it is a core value for me. I believe in forgiveness, in its social and spiritual value, but perhaps rather than trying to defend this view, I’ll focus instead on my own personal list of what forgiveness is not.

  • Forgiveness does not deny the wrongfulness of the act. On the contrary: it insists upon it. That’s precisely why people like Aunt Ruth Dutton are so annoying – to extend forgiveness to someone who is not aware of wrongdoing will seem obnoxious at best and authoritarian at worst.

  • Forgiveness does not always mean full restoration of the relationship. I struggled with this after my split from my ex-husband. Does the doctrine of forgiveness require me to return to my marriage? I concluded that it did not. Christianity requires one to forgive the wrongdoer, but not necessarily to have sex with him.

  • Forgiveness is not consequence-free. (Otherwise known as "enabling.") Forgiveness does not require one to go around coddling and protecting the wrongdoer from all natural and/or socially imposed consequences for his wrongful act. But it may help one determine just what consequences are in the wrongdoer’s best interests, as well as those of society as a whole.

  • Forgiveness is not risk-free. Sometimes, though not always, forgiveness involves the restoration of trust. As such it involves the willing assumption of risk.

  • Forgiveness is not something to which anyone is entitled. After Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, her apology – or, at least, her expectation of forgiveness – is premature. When she begins to "plume herself on her superior virtue," she reveals her shallow understanding of the gravity of her offense. (Jo forgives Amy by the end of the chapter, but I never have.) To be sure, Jo would not be justified in holding a grudge for the rest of her life – to forgive, one must relent before the full pound of flesh has been exacted. But the obligation to forgive is not based on any entitlement on the part of the offender – it has more to do with the mercy one has already received from others than with the behaviour or desires of the offender.

  • Forgiveness is not the same thing as letting go of anger. Sometimes we have to let go of anger that is irrational, selfish, or unjustified. This is not the same thing as forgiveness, though it often feels like it. Even when anger is justified, forgiveness doesn’t fully take place until it is both given and received. If the perpetrator denies his guilt or refuses contact with the victim, letting go of anger may be a powerful psychological process for the victim, but forgiveness has not fully taken place.

  • Forgiveness is not like an invitation to the all-you-can-eat buffet. To be forgiven, by definition, means to get more than you deserve, but that doesn’t make it fun, or easy. To receive forgiveness graciously requires genuine compunction and humility. In my books, at least, that means it’s harder to be forgiven than to forgive.

*****
Like all of his novels, Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent addition to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, The Good Husband of Zebra Drive, is all about ordinary mercies. Smith is an anatomist of the quotidien, pinpointing the moments of compassion, forgiveness, and self-discipline that grease the wheels of everyday life. This was a review copy, but Smith hardly needs me to puff his book for him, so rather than review the book I’ll close with a small anecdote from it:

"Let me tell you about something that happened at the orphan farm. We had a child who was stealing from the food cupboard. Everybody knew that. The housemother in charge of that cupboard had seen the child do it. The other children knew.

We talked to the child and told him that what he was doing was wrong. But still the stealing went on. And so we tried something different. We put a lock on the cupboard."

Mma Ramotswe laughed. "That seems reasonable enough, Mma."

"You may laugh," said Mma Potokwane. "But then let me tell you what we did next. We gave the key to that child. All the children have little tasks that they must do. We put that boy in charge of the cupboard."

"And?"

"And that stopped the stealing. Trust did it. We trusted him, and he knew it. So he stopped stealing. That was the end of the stealing."

Forgiveness is risky; it is powerful; but above all, it is surprising. It runs counter to our instincts. What is amazing is that it ever happens at all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Time's Arrow

"I don’t have a ‘love tank,’" hubby announced over Chinese food this evening as I attempted to grill him in preparation for my small group study of Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages. The theory behind the book is simple and ingenious: everyone needs to feel loved, but not everybody receives love in the same way. Some people feel loved when they receive a thoughtful gift; others fill up their love tanks through physical touch or acts of service. But before I could begin to enumerate the five languages, hubby rejected the underlying premise: the idea that he might actually need love.

Hubby’s self-perception is that he is self-sufficient and autonomous. He enters into relationships because they accord with his (rationally examined) values, and he prioritizes those relationships based in part on a desire for competence: it is important to him not only to have a family but also to perceive himself as a good husband and father. His behaviours, he would insist, emerge from choice rather than need.

"What fills your love tank?" I asked him as I puzzled over the Love Language Profile, a self-inventory quiz. "What makes you feel loved?"

"I’m impervious to love," he replied. "It comes at me and bounces right back off again."

"Okay," I said, trying again. "Then how do you express love?"

"That’s easy," he replied, "Through scorn and derision." (At small group tonight I asked whether "words of scorn and derision" could qualify as "words of affirmation." Once it became clear that I wasn’t joking, the response was a cautious – and somewhat pitying – maybe.)

When I first encountered Chapman’s book ten years ago, I identified my love languages as Words of Affirmation and Quality Time. Quality Time is defined as undivided attention, hours spent deep in conversation or over a shared activity. Tonight, though, as I read the recommended Quality Time activities, I started to wonder whether my love languages might need some updating. The real problem with Quality Time, I reflected, is that it’s so time-consuming.

Conversation is important to me – but I’m not convinced that it has to occur for hours at a time or while walking on the beach at sunset. Five minutes of analyzing Lost over breakfast can recharge me for the day – a bit of intimacy snatched in the midst of ordinary life. If compliments and date-nights are the food of love, then I’m a starving woman.

And yet I don’t feel hungry – I feel totally confident that I, Bub, and Pie are, collectively, the most important thing in hubby’s life. We are his top priority, consuming the lion’s share of his mental and emotional energy. His job, his friends, his hobbies – these are the icing in his life, and we are the cake.

But how do I know this? It is certainly not because he tells me so. If he ever looked deep into my eyes and said, "You are the most important thing in the world to me," I would burst out laughing, or die of shock. More likely, I would sit there embarrassed and uncomfortable, not knowing which way to look. But I believe it’s true. I believe it because he takes the kids out every Saturday morning so I can catch up on my marking. I believe it because he never once grumbled about my trip to Kentucky (despite the elaborately theatrical glowering I do whenever he signs up for a day-long gaming tournament). I believe it because he cheerfully took both children to the hardware store after supper tonight so I could stay home nursing the shin splints I acquired from running around campus all day without sensible shoes.

Have acts of service become my love language? I’ve always claimed that Acts of Service was near the bottom of my list, only marginally above Gifts. Taking out the garbage is fine, I’d argue, but it’s not going to make me go all quivery inside. Mopping the kitchen floor is helpful, but it’s hardly romantic. My responses on the Love Language Profile reflect my constitutional yearning for romance, my nostalgia for those early days of dating when talk was a performance, an audition for the role of life-mate.

But when I look again at the proofs of hubby’s love, the acts that have made me feel secure of his devotion, I notice a certain trend. Quality Time is still very much at the forefront, but nowadays that doesn’t mean candlelit dinners or walks in the woods – it means Time Apart. Time has become so rare a commodity that the currency of love is no longer the time we spend together but rather the time we free up for each other to spend alone.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Common Knowledge

As a teenage babysitter, I looked with dour disapproval upon parental beer-drinking. To be sure, I didn’t often witness such behaviour, but when my neighbours enjoyed a cold one with some friends before heading out for the evening, I was shocked – not by the alcohol per se, but rather by their apparent ignorance of the code of parental behaviour. Beer was a beverage to be consumed in six-packs at bush parties attended by underage teenagers. Parents, on the other hand, were meant to have an occasional glass of wine or sherry before going out to movies and restaurants attired in the parent uniform of black slacks and wool sweaters or khaki trousers and button-down shirts.

Children are the ultimate conservatives. Their view of the world is shaped by so limited a sphere of experience that their sense of what is normal is determined almost entirely by what is familiar. Parents don’t drink beer. There is only one right way to pronounce the word tomato. Summer vacation means a trip to the lake in a tent-trailer. When experience reveals that such norms are not universally adhered to, a child’s first response is ridicule.

I’ve never let my best friend forget the way she reacted the day I admitted (at age seven) that I didn’t know what a Winnebago was. She could not conceal – or, to be more accurate, made no attempt to conceal – her amazement and scorn at such depths of ignorance. She had known about Winnebagos for years. Everybody knew about Winnebagos. I, on the other hand, felt that the word was not only unfamiliar but also wildly improbable. Rationally, it seemed most likely that there was no such thing as a Winnebago.

It takes many years to build up a reliable sense of what knowledge counts as universal – we are constantly modifying and refining our store of collective information, learning what we can take for granted and what we need to explain. For years, I could depend on my students to recognize a Star Trek: The Next Generation reference in a lecture. Nowadays, I still use such references, but not because I expect my students to understand them – instead, they’ve become an opportunity for self-mockery, a chance for everyone to enjoy a good laugh at my expense. The cultural gap between me and my students widens each year, so I keep ditching information from the "shared" file in my head, narrowing down my definition of what counts as common knowledge.

Growing up involves not only the acquisition of knowledge but also the skill of estimating the knowledge of others. Toddlers and preschoolers, on the other hand, have not only a limited store of knowledge but also a vast and endearing confidence in the omniscience of the adults around them. Momish wrote recently about her daughter’s frustration at her grandmother’s lamentable ignorance. How can a fully grown adult not realize that "masha masha!" is meant to elicit a command performance of "Macho Man"? Sheesh. It’s an important milestone, that first realization that some words constitute a private code. I am occasionally alarmed, though, by just how many of my children’s words have meanings that do not carry beyond the doorstep of my home. At my house, the word "crazy" means "shake your head back and forth so that your hair whaps you in the face." "Snappity snap!" means "time to do up your coat." "Grocery" means "broccoli."

Such pseudo-knowledge is balanced by that strange collection of arcane facts my children accumulate from books and television. They can identify an orangutan and a lemur by sight; they know that porcupines are prickly and that a big brass instrument can be called a tuba. They are wholly unaware, on the other hand, that dinosaurs are extinct, often confidently identifying iguanas and crocodiles as dinosaurs and refusing to be corrected. They have no real grasp of concepts like school, ice skating, or planting a garden, yet if they were to encounter my eight-year-old self laughing uproariously at the notion that there’s a breed of primate called "orange uh-tun" there would be no bounds to their scorn.

Some of our childhood conservatism clings to us even in adulthood. I am still startled, sometimes, at grown-ups of my parents’ generation who defy my idiosyncratic expectations. I am no longer repelled at the idea of a parent – or grandparent – drinking beer, but I am always taken aback to find retirees who use the Internet or play the lottery. Occasionally when I’m reading blogs I’ll come across a comment from the blogger’s mother and I always have to grab my ears to prevent my head from spinning all the way around.

Perhaps one reason our culture is more than usually conservative in its expectations of mothers is this throw-back to our knee-jerk childhood reaction to anything that defies the norm set by our own families. The honest and spontaneous distaste that some people evince in response to the idea of mommy-blogging may arise from nothing more than the fact that their own mothers didn’t blog. Children perceive their parents through the lens of their own needs and preoccupations; they may be dimly aware that parents have their own lives, their own subjectivity, but they do not allow that knowledge to affect their natural egocentrism. Becoming a mommy thus transforms not only our sense of self but also our perceptions of our own mothers and of mommyhood in general. But for those who do not make that move, who do not become mommies themselves, there is little to interfere with the impulse to reject the unfamiliar, to take one’s own mother, and perhaps a few other moms from the neighbourhood, and define that as the norm against which all mothers are to be measured.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Reprise

What a hypocrite I am. I’m still working on a few sets of interview questions (don’t worry – I haven’t forgotten!), prioritizing requests from those who have not been interviewed before. And yet that does not stop me from stepping up to the trough for another round of questions. That’s because, Eve-like, I was irresistibly curious about what Andrea would ask me. The results were just as brain-tickling as I had hoped.

1. Who do you think you would be, if you weren't a Christian? How do you think your faith has molded who you are?

At one of my failed job interviews, I had a conversation with the head of the English department about the prevalence of former Christians in literary studies. Not just run-of-the-mill mainliners, but refugees from the hard-core ranks of teetotalling, Bible-college-attending, soul-winning, Rapture-awaiting fundamentalists. Most have emerged from this environment rejecting the faith of their forefathers rather than inching tentatively into the left-of-centre orthodoxy that I do my best to inhabit these days, but even so, we are over-represented in many university English departments.

"It’s the habit of reading one’s life through story," I suggested to the department chair. The gospel provides the earliest possible training in the idea of redemptive narrative, the sense that words have transformative significance, that we are shaped by the stories we believe in.

And in Canada, at least, a good fire-and-brimstone upbringing provides a doubleness of vision (at least for those of us who aren’t shipped off to Christian schools and forbidden to watch TV or read anything but Christian books). Critical thinking becomes second nature as we learn to ferret out the cultists and New Agers, the secular humanists and Satan-worshippers lurking within apparently innocent schoolteachers and TV characters. Eventually, that critical alertness is trained back upon the dogmas with which we grew up. Contradictions become apparent. Assumptions become open to question. For me, at least, the result was not wholesale rejection but rather a painful and slow process of reasoning through the conflicting messages of Bible, church, and culture. Long before I took LitCrit 101, I was trained in the hermeneutics of suspicion by earnest Sunday School teachers and youth pastors.

All this, of course, is an elaborate evasion of the question. How has my faith (not my upbringing) molded me into who I am today? I am, of course, totally unqualified to disentangle the threads of genetics and environment from the work of Christ in me. But I suspect that my faith has given me the instinct to surrender – to respond to opposition not by digging in my heels but instead by searching for the ground where peace can be combined with honesty. I wasn’t like that, as a child; in grade seven I was awarded by a classmate with the title "Most Tenacious" (she had just learned the word and felt that my name ought to be listed by it in the dictionary). Of course, it’s also possible that I’ve simply become a chicken in my old age, too afraid of conflict to hold my ground. Either that, or I’ve learned the usefulness of letting go suddenly in the midst of a pitched tug-of-war. While my opponent falls in the mud, I can give myself a nice pat on the back.

2. You have a single-use time machine with three settings: You can watch Saul on the road to Damascus, pick up those torn-out sheets from L. M. Montgomery's journal after she cut them out, or see how Elizabeth Pantley really got her kids to sleep. You choose...?

This question ought to be harder than it is. I really ought to pick Saul, right? Except I’m not sure there’d be much to see – I suspect the blinding light, the voice of God were experienced inwardly, undetectably to the casual time-travel tourist. So give me those torn-out passages from L.M. Montgomery’s journals, the ones where she describes her initial meetings with her future husband. What was in them that was so revealing she felt compelled to cut them out of a journal that is otherwise astonishingly candid about everything from sexual temptation to mental illness?

3. Your employer unexpectedly gives you a very generous severance package (unlikely, I know, but stick with me here)--enough that you don't need to worry about working for financial reasons for at least three years. What would you do for those three years?

One of the scary things about the lack of job security I have as a part-time sessional instructor is my suspicion that I need my job to be happy. I need to be in the classroom – the alchemy of turning poems into lectures, the electric charge of minds sparking off of minds – those things are addictive, and I have struggled when maternity leaves or periods of unemployment have pulled me away from that environment for more than a week or two. What would I do for those three years? Probably I would spend them much the way I spent my first year of dissertation research – intending to write, and drowning in depression and guilt instead.

4. From myers-brigg: You value justice higher than mercy (yes/no).

No.

I’m allowed to expand on that one, right?

This is the question on the Myers-Briggs test designed to determine whether you are a T (thinker) or F (feeler). It’s a problematic question. Christians, even when they are dyed-in-the-wool Ts (because they are dyed-in-the-wool Ts) will pick mercy over justice every time, because their theological training has taught them that this is the right answer. God preserve us from what we deserve. Justice balances the scales; mercy transforms. Justice looks backwards; mercy looks to the future.

But, but, but. As willing as I am to set aside justice in the mathematical sense of settling the score, I’m not nearly so willing to part with equity. Even mercy is not mercy if it’s handed out arbitrarily or unevenly. That’s why I’m not a Calvinist, no matter how often my staunch Scottish pastor takes me through the 1683 Baptist Confession.

(So is that having my cake and eating it too?)

5. Pick one, and explain why:
"I read," I say. "I study and read. I bet I've read everything you read. Don't think I haven't. I consume libraries. I wear out spines and ROM-drives. I do things like get in a taxi and say, "The library, and step on it." My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect. But it transcends the mechanics. I'm not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions. Some of them are interesting. I could, if you'd let me, talk and talk.
- David Foster Wallace, "Infinite Jest"

Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.
- David Lodge, The British Museum is Falling Down

"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
- C.S. Lewis


Oh, the ambiguity! Pick the one I like the best and explain why? Pick one to comment on and explain why? Pick the one that is most like me and explain why?

I think I’ll pick the one that uses the best rhetorical devices. The C.S. Lewis quote employs his usual precision of language (an INTJ forte), along with a nice metaphorical use of the verb "irrigates." I like it, but I wouldn’t say that it is the best example of his writing. In the Wallace quote the speaker employs hyperbole along with a deliberate and probably facetious arrogance. In that sense, it reminds me a bit of my own writing style. But the David Lodge quote is my favourite for its brevity and wit as well as its combination of parallel structure and sentence variety (two strategies not often conjoined in the same witty aphorism). His is the most distant from my own rhetorical style, and perhaps for that reason I appreciate his words the most.

Thanks for indulging me, Andrea!

And here are my lovely interviewees from last time. I hadn’t intended on linking them all up, but they’re so thoughtful and engaging I couldn’t resist:

Dani at Postcards from the Mothership
Bren at Stranger in a Stranger Land (and Part Two!)
Gwen at Woman on the Verge
Karen at Needs New Batteries
TrudyJ at Hypergraffiti
Mom-NOS with Q&A with B&P (love the clever title!)
Heather at Netherfield Hall (oops, I mean In Te Domine)
Luisa Perkins at Novembrance
Catherine at Everyday Life as Lyric Poetry
(more to come…)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Picking My Battles

Writing about parenting is hard. It’s different in that way from writing about children, which is about as difficult as falling off a log – the young imps practically write the posts themselves. Writing about motherhood can be equally easy – the transformation is miraculous and complicated, but oh-so-recognizable. But the actual ins-and-outs of parenting, the day-by-day decisions – it’s almost impossible to write anything about those without devolving instantly into clichés. Every child is different. Balance in all things. Pick your battles.

And yet I want to write a post about parenting, about the tightrope dance I’m performing right now between over-indulgence, on the one hand, and repeatedly hitting myself in the head with a two-by-four on the other.

Case in point. It has recently been discovered that Bub can be made to eat his breakfast with a spoon. All it took, really, was a willingness on our part – okay, on hubby’s part – to endure a few early-morning tantrums. The process involved three simple steps: (1) Tell the child to eat with a spoon. (2) Remove bowl from grasping fingers. (3) Listen to ear-splitting shrieks of horror. Repeat daily until no longer required (in our case, about three days).

Now an uncomfortable precedent has been set. Because if Bub can spoon up his Shreddies today, what happens tomorrow? Dressing himself? Potty training? Eating the same meal as the rest of the family instead of whatever he chooses from my short-order menu of chick peas, grilled cheese, and peanut butter on a spoon?

For a long time, what parenting taught me was submissiveness, stillness, the art of holding my breath until the desired behaviour emerged. How do you get a recalcitrant toddler to talk? By saying less, creating silences that the toddler can fill. How do you get a prickly preschooler out of the bath? By warning and waiting, holding out for the moment of compliance that will avert the knock-down, drag-out tantrum. Sometimes that moment never comes – but many times I would wrestle flailing limbs into flannel pyjamas wondering if just a few more minutes of patience on my part might have prevented a meltdown.

Now, though, it’s time for me to update my game. Pie is not as averse to transitions as her brother (her tantrums occur for other reasons, such as my unwarrantable habit of eating my own breakfast), and Bub himself is more sophisticated than he once was, capable of more than I’ve been expecting of him. It has occurred to me lately that perhaps it’s not a good thing that Bub considers obedience to be so profoundly at odds with his fundamental dignity as a human being.

All right - that’s not wholly fair. Bub amazes me with his compliance sometimes, turning his back on an exciting game of kick-the-ball, protesting and complying all in the same breath. "That’s great cooperation!" I told him this morning as we headed for the car after a half-hour of roughhousing in the church gym.

"I don’t want to be cooperating," he replied. And yet he was.

I do set boundaries, pick battles, establish rules. No bowls of cereal before supper-time (unless Bub is sick, or asks in an unusually polite or verbally sophisticated manner). A five minute warning means five minutes. The child who wants to play in the back yard on a sunny day gets to overrule the child who wants to stay in and watch TV. Naptimes and bedtimes are strictly observed. There is no hitting, and most pushes and shoves are dealt with promptly.

But the rules I set for Bub are nothing compared to the rules he sets for me. Breakfast must be served before the Pie gets up for the day: any premature appearance on her part will be heralded with shrieks of protest. Cereal must be offered in a green bowl, and carefully stirred before it will be consumed. Diaper changes occur with appropriate television entertainment (in order to compensate for the unbearable boredom of having to lie down for three minutes) – either Hi-5 or Dora the Explorer, depending on the time of day. When it’s time to head out, Bub must be carried over any deposits of snow or ice – and then he must be allowed to open the car door by himself before climbing into his seat, his book-of-the-week securely in hand. That takes us up to about 9 am – and the rest of the day is similarly regimented.

The Pie is the easy-going member of the family – she has to be, in order to accommodate Bub’s routines. But that doesn’t mean she’s not observing and adopting his tactics. She has quickly learned how to enforce rules of her own. Soothers are to be provided on demand. Mama’s food is to be considered fair game (to be consumed from a lap-top position at her sole discretion). Requests of "Up!" are to be ignored at one’s peril, and once she is up, she’s entitled to anything she sees (which means, since last Sunday, lots and lots of chocolate).

I don’t suppose any of this is unusual or dangerous behaviour – I just wonder when and how to take back the asylum. The few battles I’ve picked I’ve won handily (though not without zooming blood pressure and a splitting headache), and that makes me wonder just how high I ought to raise the bar.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Why All Moms Really Do Go To Heaven

(Theologically Correct Version)

Do all moms go to heaven? Be careful how you answer – denying this dogma can unleash a hailstorm of anathemas on your head, or at the very least a light drizzle of subtle hints that you’re not being a good sport. Moms wipe runny noses, kiss boo-boos, and chase away the monsters under the bed. How could this not qualify them for automatic entry through the pearly gates?

The problem is that heaven is a needs-based program. Admission is not determined by your ratio of good deeds to bad deeds or the number of gold stars you earn for being nice. That’s Reformation Theology 101 – you can’t earn your way to heaven, not even if you’re a mother. If you’re Catholic, of course, you may still get in on the "saved through childbearing" clause, but only if you’ve got a Papal bull to that effect tucked into your back pocket. For the rest of us, fitness for heaven is determined not by saintly behaviour or even by cash donations to Jimmy Swaggert; the only relevant criterion is acknowledgement of sin.

That’s always been a bit of a problem for me. I tend toward the generous side in my self-evaluations. Even as a painfully introspective teenager I usually gave myself the benefit of the doubt. It was always a struggle for me to find truly hideous evidence of my sinfulness, the kind that would be guaranteed to produce a saving consciousness of my need for grace.

Enter motherhood. I’ve mentioned before that having children persuaded me of the doctrine of Original Sin. Toddlers are gaping maws of selfishness, the purest possible expressions of the will to power. By the age of three, a child has begun to forge a tentative compromise between Self and World, to veil the inner monsters of Greed and Envy with socially sanctioned courtesies, but at two, the True Self is visible in all its awful glory.

My children are not the only evidence of Original Sin motherhood has shown me, however. Oh no. On a regular basis, they call forth my own inner monsters, rip off the masks of kindness and politeness that I’ve been wearing so well since I turned three myself. Children push mothers to the breaking point – they function as salutary reminders of our brokenness. For that reason, rather than listing ten reasons all mothers go to heaven, I think it would be more suitable to name seven:

Wrath: Without my children, I would seriously underestimate my capacity for rage. By this, I do not mean merely the righteous anger that wells up in me when I contemplate the victimization of children or the Stephen Harper day-care plan. I mean good, old-fashioned, unjustified frustration – the kind that makes me snarl to my husband "Get her away from me!" just because my innocent baby cries "Up, up, up!" one more time than I can patiently handle.

Gluttony: There’s a reason I weigh twenty pounds more now than I did before I got pregnant with the Pie. In "Bartleby, the Scrivener," Herman Melville writes about law-copyists who cope with the desperate boredom of their lives by ingesting a steady stream of Spitzenberg apples and ginger cakes. In my case, it’s chocolate. From where I’m sitting right now, I can see a package of Double Stuf Oreos, a Cocoa Camino dark-chocolate espresso bar, a sack of peanut-butter Easter eggs, a bag of ketchup-flavoured chips, and a box of Girl Guide cookies. It’s not like I cope with the demands of motherhood by relying on my inner resources, you know.

Lust: (Insert sigh of relief.) Okay, I get a free pass on this one: motherhood has greatly reduced my levels of lust. But hold on. It turns out that "lust" is really a translation of "luxuria" or "extravagance." Maybe not a free pass, then. From where I’m sitting right now I can see three books I didn’t really need to buy for myself (and could not realistically afford), along with a stack of unwatched DVDs and far more toys than any two small children can feasibly play with.

Sloth: That membership at the gym I used to have? I kept it for a year after Bub was born before I decided that I could no longer afford to pay $120 per visit (based on my once-every-three-months pattern of workouts). That’s minor-league sloth, though, compared to the laziness that prevents me from taking my children outside or roughhousing with them indoors when they’re bored. Even at my best, I can manage only a few rounds of "Ring Around the Rosy" before I flee to the kitchen to scan a few blogs before supper. (Any blog haters out there? Rest assured, before I discovered blogging I found plenty of other ways to manifest my inner sloth.)

Greed: A Pottery Barn nursery. A house with a living room, dining room, and separate play room. A trendy SUV with built-in carseats and DVD player. I do not have any of these things. But I have fallen prey, from time to time, to the urge to acquire them. When we bought our house four years ago, I was overwhelmed at my good fortune; after years of nomadic student-life, I settled expansively into its spacious rooms and felt utterly at home. I still feel that way, often – but when I look at the broken-down garbage-night-special plastic toys littered in my back yard or the cluttered desks and train-tables wedged into my rec room, that old restlessness of desire begins to stir.

Envy: Beside the clear brightness of Bub’s eyes, my own are streaked and bloodshot. My skin is spotted and pitted with pores, hideous in comparison to the creamy smoothness of the Pie’s. Although my adult body is strong and skilled, it is also ravaged by time, and when the Pie compares her sweet little belly-button with mine, I am reminded of the gigantic Brobdingnagians from Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver describes a nursing Brobdingnagian mother this way:

I must confess no Object ever disgusted me so much as the Sight of her monstrous Breast, which I cannot tell what to compare it with, so as to give the curious Reader an idea of its Bulk, Shape, and Colour. It stood prominent six Foot, and could not be less than sixteen in Circumference. The Nipple was about half the Bigness of my Head, and the Hue both of that and the Dug so varified with Spots, Pimples and Freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous.

I delight in the beauty of my children, but gazing all day at their trim bellies and radiant skin does not always help me appreciate my own.

Pride: This one may be the hardest for me to admit – those twinges of self-satisfaction I feel when Bub cheerfully obeys my instructions or when Pie chatters brightly at a level far beyond her years. Such complacency is repulsive, I know, but even worse are those inner raised eyebrows that disappear behind my inner bangs when I see a toddler out after nine p.m. I glance at my watch and think of my own children tucked snugly into their little beds. I do remember to be grateful – but only after I’ve given myself a little more credit than I deserve.

The seven deadly sins are kind of fun, aren’t they? But they speak to the reality that motherhood demands more of me than I have to give. I avoid, I evade, I slack off, I snap. Every day, my children drive me back to the arms of the Father, searching to replenish my inadequate stores of love, joy, peace, and patience. Motherhood is paving my way to heaven – but only because it shines a harsh, blazing light on my flaws.

God have mercy on me, a sinner.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bub and Geister

When my BFF and I married best friends and then had our sons six weeks apart, we embraced the clichés. Hubby has always been a tad embarrassed by the best-friends-marrying-best-friends thing, but I figure if it’s good enough for Jane and Lizzy, it’s good enough for us. I only wish we all lived in the same neighbourhood, because Bub and Geister are a perfect match, their opposing personalities meshing optimally for harmonious interaction.

Bub is, of course, very much of two minds about the concept of social interaction. In a group setting, he will simply select a toy and then remain on the sidelines, rarely heading to the centre of the fray. His best socialization occurs in one-on-one environments where he becomes the sole target for a peer’s gregarious instincts. At day-care, for instance, he has Bossy Girl. Two months older than Bub, Bossy Girl views her peers as objects to be arranged. "You go here!" she commands, placing Bub inside the play tent. While often alarmed at this manoeuvre, he is surprisingly amenable to her arrangements, relieved, I think, by her willingness to take command of the interaction. Nevertheless, Bub and Bossy Girl are prone to fights over disputed toys – interacting with her is a lesson in self-defence.

Geister, on the other hand, is the Friendly Follower. His instincts are supremely social, and when he and Bub were thrown together yesterday afternoon, he initiated a prolonged wooing of his new friend. "This is my favourite toy!" he exclaimed, showing Bub a double-decker bus.

Bub fixed him with a steely glare. "No," he replied shortly.

Slightly confused, Geister pondered this reply a moment before insisting with renewed confidence, "Yes, it is my favourite!"

Even Bub is not impervious, though, to the appeal of a shared interest. The ice-breaker between the two boys turned out (not surprisingly) to be a book. Baby VanGogh is the book of choice for Bub right now, his constant companion and security blanket. No impulse of friendliness will be received more gratefully by him than a polite expression of interest in his book. Once Geister unlocked the key to that puzzle, the two boys settled down side by side to read. Geister politely allowed Bub to hold the book and turn the pages while the two of them took turns pointing out the colours, conversing amiably about yellow fields and starry blue skies.

"He never takes a leadership role," my friend observed of her son as we watched the boys chase one another through the back yard. That’s not precisely true: Geister is a finely tuned social instrument – he instinctively takes his cue from others in order to promote friendship and harmony. In Bub’s case, that means that he abides by the toddler property laws (do not touch thy neighbour’s favourite book), and transforms Bub’s independent play into a game. Bub runs to the back fence; Geister follows and initiates a football tackle when he catches up. Before long, both boys are shrieking and laughing, making eye contact and coordinating their motions to run side by side. It’s an awesomely complicated game, this building of friendship, one that Bub is learning piece by piece with the help of his adept three-year-old teacher.


*****

Bub isn’t the only one who’s a sucker for a shared interest. Gwen and I share several interests, among them the show Survivor. So when she managed to take a post about Survivor and turn it into a meditation on social justice, I was compelled to recognize it with a Just Post award. You can read the rest of this month’s Just Posts here and here.

justpostmar2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Surreal Life


The Scene: It is lunchtime, and Bub and Pie are seated at the kitchen table – Bub in his booster seat and Pie beside him in "Daddy’s chair" – demanding macaroni and cheese.

Pie and Bub : (in unison) Mac-a-RO-ni! Mac-a-RO-ni!
Hubby: It will be ready in a minute – we have to make it hot. Pie, no pulling on your brother’s sock.
Pie: Pull! Pull!
(The sock comes off Bub’s foot. Pie goes flying off the side of the chair, landing on her head.)
Pie: (screams)
Bub: (alarmed) My sock is off! My sock is off!
Hubby: (scrambling to get a bag of frozen peas out of the freezer while simultaneously comforting the little girl) Bub, your sock is not the main issue right now.
Pie: (screams)

(I come running up the stairs from my basement office, where I am supposed to be marking essays. Pie reaches out her arms towards me and collapses against my chest, her body heaving now and then with quiet, shuddering sobs. I hold her against my tear-soaked sweater, stroking her hot, panicky forehead. Finally, she relaxes, breathing deeply, and I wonder if I should feel guilty for enjoying this moment so much.)

Bub: (exasperated) I’m getting too frustrated! Where’s sock go?
(Pause. He tentatively bites a piece of broccoli.) Mmm. Grocery!

End scene.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Excuses, Excuses

April is the cruelest month for beleaguered professors facing a flood of dubious excuses for late essays and missed tests, all delivered with carefully calculated bravado. "I won’t be coming to class again this term," one student explained to me last week, "because my parents want me to go to Florida."

Oh, well then – if your parents want you to spend the last two weeks of class catching some rays in Fort Lauderdale, who am I to argue? But if you think I’m coming in during the exam period to supervise a special quiz, you can think again.

Another student was elaborately astonished to discover (a) that I had not received the essay she claims to have emailed me two weeks previously, and (b) that I wanted a hard copy of said essay. "You mean – I have to hand the essay to you on paper?" she spluttered, eyes bulging a little at the demandingness of me. Yes, actually, you do – I find hard copies so much easier to mark than hypothetical digital versions that I haven’t actually received.

I’ve got nothing to compare, though, to Aliki’s best anecdote, the one that left me wiping away tears of laughter and prompted me to give her this month’s ROFL award.

March ROFL Award

Go and read The one with Aunt Flo – and then check out the rest of this month’s winners here and here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Rules (Toddler Edition)

How to Get the Toys You Want and the Attention You Need!

1. Be a toddler unlike any other.
Cultivate unusual tastes in books, music, and TV shows. If your sibling rival requests a particular CD, immediately veto it and urge an alternative of your own choosing. After all, if both siblings agree to listen to the same music, how will anyone discover which child is the parents’ favourite?

2. Never accept an initial offer. Always wait for the parents to sweeten the deal. If you’re offered goldfish, hold out for arrowroots. If you’re offered a bedtime story, hold out for a shoulder ride.

3. Grab first, ask questions later. Removing a valued toy from a new acquaintance can be a great way to initiate fun get-to-know-you games like tag or hide-and-seek.

4. The answer is no. And the question is irrelevant. When you hear that rising inflection, respond promptly and firmly – that way parents know you’re in charge.

5. Develop a no-limits attitude. If you arch your back insistently enough, eventually the parents will realize that child safety seats are an affront to basic human dignity.

6. Eat what’s on your mommy’s plate. It almost always tastes better than what’s on yours.

7. Don’t be afraid to play hard to get. Parents take you for granted if you come across as too eager. Run away sometimes and let them pursue you – especially during diaper changes.

Did I miss any?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Interview with a Mouse

The interview meme, brought to you by Mouse:

You have probably addressed this to some degree; I bet you have this recorded in one of your old journals: What did your 18-year-old self imagine you would be doing in your 30s?

Well, let me pull out my grade ten journal, in which I recorded a "Timeline of my Life," including my date of marriage as well as the birthdates of my four children. According to my sixteen-year-old self, I was to be married by now to the U2-listening, eyeliner-and-Converse-wearing aspiring missionary of my dreams (though, apparently, not actually on the mission field in this vision of my future). My oldest child (whose name bears a very close resemblance to the Pie’s) would be eight years old by now, with the youngest (also a girl, after two intervening brothers) just about to turn three. In my spare time between pregnancies, I have published two novels, launching a modestly successful literary career.

So that’s my view of the future at age sixteen. I don’t think I altered very much in the following two years (though I did begin to toy with the idea of university teaching at around that point). The real death-blow to my life plan didn’t occur until I was nineteen, when the aspiring missionary of my dreams became engaged to someone who was not me. Alas.

Which book would you most like to live?

The first title to flash into my mind here, possibly due to my recent trip to Kentucky, was Gone with the Wind which is most emphatically not a book I’d want to live. There isn’t a single character in that novel with whom I’d agree to trade places, but if I had to choose, I’d say anybody but Melly, what with her hideous labour and delivery experiences and her post-partum wagon trip out of a burning Atlanta. The book I would like to live, and have tried to live, is The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. It offers a recipe for life-change to the downtrodden:

  • Move. Get away from the people whose confining perceptions of you are holding you back, and go someplace else – preferably to a beautiful island in Muskoka.
  • Speak the truth. Say what you think and let the devil take the consequences. (I’ve been less successful in implementing this strategy, but I still enjoy it vicariously whenever I read the book.)
  • Know who your friends are and stick by them.
  • Remember that the flashy, popular, beautiful people are all about the window-dressing; it’s the quiet, mysterious ones who last. Still waters run deep.
  • You don’t have to keep on being the person you’ve always been. Change really is possible.

I swear this is only one question: What is your favorite color and what do you think it says about you?

Yellow. Not lemon yellow or butter yellow but a deep, rich, vibrant gold-yellow. Like this:


Or, better yet, this:


Those images capture the right shade of yellow, but still, they’re all wrong. Yellow is not meant to be the dominant colour in an image: it should be a tantalizing flash in the background, glimpsed amid a clutter of ordinary shades of red and brown and blue. (There are some wonderful examples here of paintings with yellow teapots half-hidden behind casual hands and shirtsleeves, yours for a mere $2350!)

Yellow has been my favourite colour ever since I was a little girl; I have never wavered from it. I do love red, and can occasionally even appreciate an especially well-chosen blue, but yellow is in a category by itself. It’s a chemical, a mood-altering drug.

I am, I think, basically a happy person. My "set-point" of happiness is generally high. But I’m a happy person who sits blithely enjoying a pleasant picnic only a few feet away from an abyss. Yellow is what keeps me up on the ledge; on the rare occasion when I’ve fallen over, the colour yellow has been instrumental in pulling me back out.

Which of your character traits do you most hope your children will not have?

This is a hard one; I have an unhealthily expansive sense of self-acceptance that prevents me from really regretting any of my traits. I am hoping, though, that my children will inoculate one another against the crippling fear of (and yet obsession with) the opposite sex that characterized my teenage years.

This is the question I've had the most trouble framing. It originates in some issues I've been pondering lately, so I hope it comes across as I intend. What is one of Bub's personality traits you would not be willing to trade for some amazing treatment or therapy that would, without any pain or labor, suddenly make him 'normal'?

Another hard question to answer. All of the traits I adore most in my son are the ones that raise the red flags. I love the way he approaches language as a scientist, studying its workings before consciously making them his own. I have been and continue to be so fascinated by his process of language-acquisition, the very palpable way he has made each leap, the sense of surprise in his attitude as he realizes that words contain useful information! or that playing with other children can be fun! What I adore most, perhaps, is how self-contained he can be, inwardly focused on a toy or a puzzle while toddler-chaos storms around him.

I never wanted a boy (my grade-ten timeline notwithstanding); I always knew I wanted girls. But after I met my husband, I had a glimpse of the kind of son I might want to have, an intensely inward-looking fellow with a deep need for competence – someone who might accidentally grab a stranger’s hand at the grocery store and then be overcome with an invisible and yet crushing sense of embarrassment. And that’s the son I have, the boy Bub is slowly becoming.

The other day our neighbours were playing in their backyard and Bub hovered hesitantly at the back door, wanting to join in and yet constrained by something – it’s impossible to say exactly what. The only way he would agree to come out was sans boots and with the door hanging open. Three times he emerged, announced, "I’m coming to see you!" – and then fled back indoors. After a minute or two, he would return with the same announcement. Finally on the fourth try he relaxed enough to get on the swing (where he even permitted me to put boots over his muddy socks). Before long, the seven-year-old girl who lives next door was in our back yard, sitting at a picnic table while Bub showed her his book, the one that accompanies him everywhere right now. He was visibly gratified by her attention, shyly proud, as if he senses already that social interaction is appealing, irresistible even, yet laden with subtle dangers.

I cannot imagine that, given the chance, I would change a single thing about that boy.


(Do you want to be interviewed? Let me know!)

Monday, April 02, 2007

(And It Feels So Good)

One way to identify a girl who has been reading a lot of old-fashioned children’s books is by the way she will casually throw the word "orgy" into polite conversation. (Pronunciation may vary.) "I had an orgy of reading," she might write innocently in her diary, or, if she’s feeling especially ambitious one Halloween night, she might add an even more bookish-sounding adjective: "It was a veritable orgy of candy-eating." Jo March and Anne Shirley are constantly having orgies involving poetry, gossip, or platefuls of russet apples, and it’s often several years before their innocent readers become aware of the usual connotations of the word.

That’s the terminology I’m tempted to use to describe my weekend in Kentucky. It was a real Bacchanalian orgy of coffee-drinking, meta-blogging, and above all, talking. We ate biscuits with gravy, saw life-size mannequins of Colonel Sanders, admired antique minstrel posters and Confederate uniforms – but around and over and through these things we talked. We binged on talk until we got sick, and then after a quick purge we reconvened to talk some more. We talked books (Severus Snape – Friend or Foe?), we talked TV (Jack or Sawyer? answer: Sayid), we talked blogs (and blogs and blogs), we talked babies (once and future), we talked day-care and pre-school and Teletubbies vs. Barney.

And then, all at once, I was home. And Pie looked at me when she got out of bed, all rumpled and warm, and announced delightedly, "Is it Daddy? No. It’s Mama!" And Bub gave me a quizzical glance before directing at me the question I ask him every evening in order to promote episodic memory: "Where did you go this morning, Mama?" (Only recently has he begun, tentatively, to answer this question; he has never posed it before, and certainly not with the flattering intensity he showed at breakfast, as if he really wanted to know the answer.)

I am amazed, once again, at my children’s ingenuity, the way they stretch their repertoire of words, looking for phrases to fit this wholly unexpected occurrence, the mama who wasn’t there, and then suddenly is again, an occasion that deserves recognition, acknowledgment, using whatever resources they can muster.

They are only just beginning to talk, these young ones of mine, yet somehow they understand already how words work, how we use them haphazardly to cross the distances between us, extending them to one another in friendship and in love.