Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hurts So Good

  • biting down on a single peppercorn, feeling it burn on the tongue
  • Coke, cold from the can
  • the sun beating down on 32-SPF-slathered shoulders at the beach
  • beef vindaloo with lots of yogourt and naan bread
  • ice-cream headache


  • deep-muscle-therapy massage
  • a really hot bath
  • a vigorous shampoo from a hairdresser who has ever-so-slightly too-long fingernails
  • a pedicure (especially the part with the cheese-grater instrument they use to slough off all the dead skin from your heels)
  • abs, the day after a really good set of crunches
  • hot sand and tiny, cracked seashells


  • nursing a hungry six-week old baby after an unusually long stretch of sleep
  • squeezing a really big zit
  • snot freezing in your nostrils on a still, bright winter day
  • scratching a mosquito bite
  • pulling off your shoes at the end of a long day
  • crying until your eyelashes are white with salt
  • dill pickle chips
  • rollercoasters


  • early labour, when you bend over at the waist with each contraction, but straighten up again after 60 seconds to unload the dishwasher, call the in-laws, and exult over the fact that you didn’t need an induction
  • sore boobs during the first trimester, when they’re painful enough to provide reassuring sensations of achiness every time you poke them just to make sure you’re still pregnant
  • splashing in icy water at the bottom of a flume zoom ride
  • two-day stubble on the man you love
  • dark-roasted coffee


  • the last few dips of a Lik’m’Aid Fun Dip, the roof of your mouth rubbed raw with cherry- and lime-flavoured sugar
  • cream-cheese-filled jalapeno poppers

Did I miss any?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Bitter and the Sweet

Exhibit A:
Bub is looking for his mouse book. "Where’s One Grey Mouse?" he demands, spinning his head this way and that, not quite frantic yet, but close.

"It’s over there," I respond, pointing to a small bookshelf.

Bub does his elaborate pointing-mimicry game, screwing up his face to squeeze one eye shut and darting out his index finger at a rakish angle, roughly approximating the direction in which I’m pointing. He’s not necessarily looking in that direction, though, so I coach him. "No, down!"

He turns to face me and then looks at his feet, as if expecting the book to materialize there like magic. "No, over! And down!" I’m jabbing my finger in the direction of the bookshelf, he’s jabbing his in all directions, and finally the Pie scrambles off the couch, grabs the book from the shelf and presents it to Bub in triumph, with much mutual shouting of "Hurray!" and "You found it!" There is general jumping up and down and celebration, and I reflect that although Bub is apparently incapable of following a simple pointing gesture, he is generous of heart and he loves his sister.

Exhibit B:
We slept in this morning.

This was, apparently, because hubby had a late-ish court date this morning, though I had no way of knowing this when I looked at the clock and discovered that it was 7:20 instead of the usual 6:30. (Bub was out of bed already of course, having gotten up at 5:30, but he had been ushered down to the playpen where he takes his naps in the dim light of the basement rec room. Barbaric, I know – but I’ve somehow never managed to absorb the idea that it’s wrong to confine children if that will get them an additional two hours of sleep.)

As I poured out my Life cereal and orange juice, I enjoyed the unusual sensation of feeling rested and alert, enjoying my coffee for the sweet, creamy flavour rather than the needed caffeine jolt. This pleasant sensation almost – but not quite – outweighed the general chaos of our disrupted morning routine. Instead of munching quietly with Bub before the rest of the household arose, I was running interference for both children, jumping to mop up spilled drinks, replace Corn Squares with Shreddies, and respond to numerous demands of "Read a book this one!" from the Pie. When I barked at hubby, "If you’re thinking of having a shower, you can just wait until I finish my breakfast!" he wondered if I was cross about the spilled juice, or if it was something else. "No, pretty much just that," I responded.

Then the kids got up from breakfast, and Bub began wailing in horror because his favourite TV show came on, the one he usually watches at day-care, and as he bitterly protested this unconscionable violation of the morning-routine treaty, I reflected that the apple falls not so far from the tree. "We’re not so different, you and I," I told Bub in a deep, melodramatic voice.

"No TV!" he screamed in reply.

Exhibit C:
I started a routine of bedtime prayers with Bub the other night. I had thought of doing so before, but it seemed unlikely that he would understand or cooperate, so I let things slide. Recently, though, he has begun to participate enthusiastically in the rhyming grace we say before our meals. "Time to pray," we prompt him, and he folds his hands, chiming in at ever-increasing volumes: "Great God and giver! of all! GOOD! Accept our praise and bless! our! FOO-O-OOD!"

So as we were cuddling in bed a couple of nights ago, I asked him, "Do you want to pray?"

"Okay!" he answered, turning to go nose to nose with me, eyes as big and green as a cat’s.

Extemporaneous prayer has never been my strong suit, so I fell back on a version of the nightly prayer my mother used to do with me. "Dear God, thank you for the nice day Bub had today at Sharon’s" (his day-care provider’s house).

"And nice day at home," he prompted.

"Help Bub to be a nice boy tomorrow," I went on (niceness being the major concept in my infantile prayers). "God bless Pie, God bless Daddy…"

"God bless Mama," Bub added, "God bless Sharon."

"And God bless Bub."

"God bless Bub."

"Amen."

"A-men."

Monday, May 28, 2007

Monday Mission: Verse

Saturday morning, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge might have written it:

At a local school did Bub and Pie
A stately yard-sale go to see
Where clowns their comic trade did ply
While cotton candy spun hard by
And children shrieked with glee.
And in gymnasiums were found
Junk purveyers gathered round:
And there were tables bright with plastic frills
Where buzzed full many a drunken bumblebee;
And here for but a couple crisp new bills,
A tricycle or wagon one might see.

But oh! a costly Super Mario game
Was bought by hubby, from a naïve boy!
Addictive Cube which by Nintendo made
Could steal an afternoon or summer day
And give to Bub and Pie unending joy!
And from this sale, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As children o’er their new toys fast were breathing,
A mighty tug-of-war from them was forced
To see whose stuff could quickest be divorced
From siblings who to new toys had laid claim
‘Gainst rivals who would seek to steal the same.
A wooden table, painted red and yellow
The parents bought for sister and fine fellow.
It was a goodly table, perfect size,
Complete with chairs for brother and his sister
Who ducked when brother swung a fist – and missed her,
While mother bit her lip and shut her eyes.
"My dears, this is a sharing toy!" she said,
"And if you cannot share, you’ll go to bed!"
Then Bub and Pie their warfare did abate
To see their mother in so great a twitter
For oft had they arranged to stay up late
Instead of being packed off with a sitter.
So to McDonald’s hard they hurried fleet
For fries and grilled-cheese sandwiches to eat.

A mother with two quarrelling children
In a vision once I saw:
It was a stressed and harried mom
Who could not long maintain her calm,
With two such raging children.
Could I revive within me
Her frustration and her grief
To such a deep dismay ‘twould win me
That with pity and belief,
I would sing of her despair
That push and shove! That tug of war!
And all who heard should see them there
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
That shrieking child, that squabbling pair!
Weave a circle round them thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For they on junk-sale toys have fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Which Book?

In Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down, there’s a character who, as a kind of reflex, hurls British insults like "Toff!" at anyone who dares to (a) use a word she doesn’t know, or (b) allude to a book she hasn’t read. It’s a surprisingly endearing characteristic. I don’t know that I can personally claim to be an anti-intellectual, but I have a low threshold of annoyance for writers who seem to be showing off.

For a long while, I maintained a policy of reading novels only if they had been published before, say, 1910. For the Victorians, literary quality was measured by the complexity of an author’s characterization, the subtlety of her social criticism, and the depth of her philosophical profundity. After modernism, however, pretensions to literary greatness had more to do with the amount of Crap Suffered by the protagonists and the Experimental Language used to describe it.

My feeling is that if you want to play around with language, write a poem. Nothing puts me off a novel quicker than a self-consciously writerly prose style. This is a debilitating trait of mine, I realize – it prevents me from fully enjoying even excellent writers like Alice Munro. I love Munro’s characters and her knack for wry observation, but that enjoyment is always tempered by my sense that she’s just a little too interested in her own facility with words.

Such is my initial response to Andrea MacPherson’s Beyond the Blue. If I had picked this book up in a bookstore, I would never have chosen to buy it: in the opening chapter alone I found the following examples of figurative language:

  • They keep their anger and secrets close as bone.
  • Sometimes there had even been joy: the bright orange explosion of it, engagements, new babies, marriages mended.

Taken by themselves, those two sentences are intriguingly well-crafted – I can admire the choice of words, the creative analogies. In context, though, these elements are distracting. Instead of paying attention to the characters and their situation, I am quibbling over the aptness of the simile – can bone really be considered "close"? More importantly, I am wary of the promise made by such language: those two sentences notify most readers that this is a reflective, well-written novel, one that resists easy sentiments and vapid formulas. What they tell me, however, is that this is a novel that aspires to be Bleak and Unflinching – and that would be enough to persuade me, under ordinary circumstances, to drop the book like a hot potato and head over to the nearest stack of hot-pink paperbacks.

But I did not pick this book up in a bookstore – I ordered a review copy based on the synopsis: set in 1918, the novel focuses on a family of women in Dundee, Scotland who work at the local jute mill. Having finished the first chapter, I am suspecting already that my irritation at the style is one of those irrational prejudices that too often prevents me from reading worthwhile and memorable books. A sixteen-year-old girl is killed in an industrial accident at the mill (bleak! unflinching!) and the characters’ register strikingly disparate reactions: Wallis averts her eyes, Imogen asks greedily for details, Caro comments slightingly on the victim’s appearance, earning a rebuke from her mother Morag who is uncomfortably aware of how helpless she is to insulate her daughters from the hazards and everyday drudgery of her life. If the style is a bit off-putting, the character names are drawing me in – names like Caro and Morag, so Scottish and dark!

That, as it were, is option #1. The alternatives are The Hopeless Romantic’s Handbook, by Gemma Townley, or Momzillas, by Jill Kargman. The premise of the first book is that perpetually single Kate Hetherington orders a book from eBay that changes her life (for the worse, I suspect). The paragraphs are short (two or three lines apiece), and the dialogue is snappy. Here’s a sample of the writing style:

  • In the winter Tom felt safe, because everyone was miserable.
  • (a quote from the handbook) The path of the righteous man is, according to the Bible and that other great morality story Pulp Fiction, beset on all sides by the inequities [does she mean iniquities?] of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. The path of the hopeless romantic isn’t exactly a bed of roses either; it’s beset by equally selfish and tyrannous men who say one thing and mean another, never return your calls, and generally act like idiots.

My initial impression of this book is that Townley is a funny writer who makes something of a specialty out of random theories. Tom’s preference for winter, for instance, is based on the utility of low expectations: in the summer, one always has the uneasy feeling that one is expected to be Having Fun; winter is better because then mere survival is enough. "Bed of roses" may not be an original metaphor, but it’s not distracting or show-offy either.

Momzillas, my third review option, focuses on chic Manhattan competimommies. The book opens with a glossary of terms like "affluenza" and "hypochondrimom" ("Mom who constantly thinks her kid is sick and/or that other kids are sick and will infect her kid"). What’s not to like about an author who takes the momosphere’s favourite hobby (the invention of composite terms) and bases an entire book on it? Kargman is more willing than Townley to use big words (even words she hasn’t made up herself): the opening paragraph contains terms like "crystalline," "ice-licked" and "endless snowy desert" (she’s describing an episode of Sesame Street wherein Global Grover visits Alaska). Her writing style reminds me a bit of my own, actually: her sentences are unwieldy with all the packed-in details and cultural references. A representative sample:

  • The night we arrived, Josh ordered a Chinese feast, and after we tucked Violet into her Pack ‘n’ Play, we chowed take-out cartonloads of chow fun and General Tso’s chicken by the flickering light of nonaromatherapy candles.

It’s the superfluous details that really make the sentence, don’t you think? You gotta love a writer who goes out of her way to inform you that the candles at dinner are not aromatherapy. On the other hand, the lingo’s charm is fading fast: in the second chapter, the words bridearexia, awky (for awkward, I assume?), and convo appear, all within a single paragraph.

So which book would you pick? (1) the Serious Fiction with intentional sentence fragments and startling metaphors, (2) a bit of Brain-candy Chick-lit, or (3) a Mommy-novel with lots of in-jokes and big words, narrated by a PhD-candidate-turned-stay-at-home mom?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Another Non-Post

Does anybody want to write this post for me? I’m sure that, in the right hands, it will be both witty and charming.

Opening Anecdote: In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice joins a giant chess-game, starting as a pawn and progressing until she becomes a queen. The Red Queen invites her to play saying, "You can be the White Queen’s Pawn, if you like, as Lily’s too young to play."


Basic Concept: Colour names. If Lily is the White Queen’s pawn, what are Red Queen’s pawns called? Rose, Ruby, Coral, Scarlett, [insert two more red-themed girls’ names here], and their brothers Rusty and Garnet? Who are their friends when they go out to play? Saffron, Sage (and her brother Hunter), Bianca and Pearl (two more of the white pawns), Violet, and Skye?


Possible Avenues of Development

  • Random Seinfeld-esque Ruminations: Why are there so many red names, yet not a single name based on orange? How can we best promote the use of the name Saffron, which is really lovely and not nearly as popular as it deserves to be? What are the colour-words that ought to be names but aren’t? Aquamarine?

  • New Trends in Family-Themed Names: It’s so 1978, that trend of giving all your children names starting with the same letter (Duggar family take note). Imagine how much simpler it would be if, instead of naming your daughters Jenna, Julia, Josephine, and Jemima, parents could name them after paint chips? Sienna, Umber, Sandy, and Cinnamon, let’s say.

  • New Trends in Blogging Names: Antique (White) Mommy and Cinnamon Gurl, you guys are the vanguard. Maybe this is the solution to my blog-handle dilemma. Instead of B&P, the Queen, or Glenda (thanks Gwen for such great suggestions!) I could name myself after my blog template! What do you think – should I call myself Saffron, Bronwyn, or Pumpkin Spice?

Okay, maybe it wasn’t such a great post idea after all. Never mind.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Few Things I Have to Say

  • I can’t think of anything dramatic that I’ve been forgiven for. However, I can think of several things my friends and family Put Up With on a regular basis, like my lax behaviour with regard to thank-you notes and RSVP’s (evil! I know!), my total inability to Pick Up a Phone, and my insertion of Random Capital Letters in otherwise normal sentences.

  • My children sometimes like to refer to one another by their blog names. I believe they consider them to be categories rather than proper names. "[She] is a pie," Bub will declare, and Pie pipes up in reply, "[He] is a bub." (We haven’t used those nicknames since they were babies, but the exception is bathtime, when "Scrub a Bub!" and "One Bub in a tub!" become irresistible, and then of course the Pie cannot be left out.)

  • Official Lost predictions: The body in the casket is Ben. The main Losties will be back on the island by the end of episode 3 at the very latest, joining forces with some of the Others (and Locke, who never left) to protect the Fountain of Youth/Tree of Life from corporate takeover. But we won’t find out for sure that it’s a Fountain of Youth/Tree of Life for many more episodes to come.

  • Last night’s Lost finale signals the end of the fall/winter TV schedule and officially inaugurates the annual season of Figuring Out What to Talk About With My Spouse. Suggestions?

  • One good thing about maintaining simultaneous Bloglines and Google Reader accounts is that when the ugly Bloglines plumber shows up, I can still get to my blogz.

  • Do you ever have an hour of down-time when you’re supposed to be working from home, but instead you’re relaxing? And when that happens, do you find yourself unable to spend more than ten minutes on any given activity, because as soon as you start reading blogs, you think you should be sitting on the couch with a book, and as soon as you sit on the couch, you remember the laundry that needs to be put in the dryer, the hydro bill that needs to be paid, the library books that need to be renewed, and the blog post that you kind of want to write? There’s nothing less relaxing, really, than a one-hour window of relaxation time.

  • Okay, that’s a respectable list. Now for the real reason for this post:


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Italia


I was thinking about my high-school trip to Italy the other day. I cashed in the savings from three years of babysitting, bussing tables, and working cash at the local fruit market and spend it all on a week of visiting Verona, Pisa, and Padua, with overnight stays in Venice, Florence, and Rome. I wrote a travel diary about the trip which became my Magnum Opus for my Writer’s Craft class that year. It was full of colour-words like salmon and terra-cotta, full of reflections on Roman Catholicism and gelato and randy Italian men. What I left out of that journal, though, is what I remember best: it was the first time I could really relax in a group of my peers.

High school is a time of constant vigilance: one must be continually on the look-out for insidious snubs, subtle clues to the shifting tribal allegiances that govern a pack of teenage girls. No one enjoys high school, of course, but I was among those unfortunate enough to be in Ontario during the years of grade 13. It’s bad enough having to suffer through three or four years in that Darwinian environment, but a fifth year is just insulting. It’s taking things too far.

For all that, I can’t regret that fifth year of high school, because it was the year I beat the system, or at least witnessed its breakdown. The Berlin Wall was coming down, communism was crumbling into oblivion, and at my high school it was as if the world outside began to infiltrate the cafeteria, busting up the tables, redistributing all of us into new groups, new friendships. Reality began to sink in: we all realized, simultaneously, that the rigid social dynamics of high-school popularity were oh-so-close to becoming totally obsolete. In a few short months, no one would care whether you sat at the coveted lunch table beside the window or skulked in a corner by the kitchen.

In September of that year, I managed to infiltrate a group of friends I had admired from afar since grade 9. Some of these girls were charitable, others were mean – but by the end of October I was no longer there on sufferance, the pathetic brainiac who had no one to eat lunch with. I was genuinely liked by somebody other than my mother and my best friend, and it was a giddy experience.

My trip to Italy occurred over the March break. We were a mixed bag, mostly senior students, a few from the highest echelons of popularity. And while our feet were on European soil, nobody saw any point in maintaining the codes of high-school social behaviour. We hung out in herds, tramped around Florence bargaining for leather coats and tapestry bags; we flirted with Venetian gondoliers and snapped pictures of each other on the Spanish steps in Rome.

One afternoon in Florence a group of us girls were lounging around our hotel room, resting our aching feet. The room contained five single beds and opened out onto the dining room where we would sip lattes in the mornings, nibbling sections of sweet blood oranges. Its windows were the old-fashioned kind: you could throw them open and look down into the streets lined with tented stalls peddling paper and pottery and everything in between. As we lay sprawled on our beds, my best friend told a story about a confusing incident that had occurred before we left home. She had been chatting in class about a car repair, and when she said, "I need to get my tires rotated," a boy sitting beside her had snickered meaningfully.

What did it mean? Was "getting your tires rotated" a well-known euphemism for some kind of unspeakably embarrassing sex act? Was this one of the many things that everybody knew accept us? Nobody knew the answer, so when Deanna – popular, in-the-know Deanna – got back from her shopping spree we put the question to her: did she know what it meant to get your tires rotated?

Her face lit up. "I know what that means!" she exclaimed. We leaned forward, anticipating something deliciously salacious. "It’s when they move the rear tires up to the front of the car so that the treads wear down evenly."

I wish that, today, there were anything at all that could make me laugh like I did that day, until my sides hurt, until tears poured down my face and I was gasping for breath. And I wish, to this day, that I knew what it meant. Does anybody know the euphemistic significance of getting one’s tires rotated?

Monday, May 21, 2007

Why I Want To Be a Victorian

The 24th of May
Is the Queen’s birthday!

That’s a little rhyme my grandmother taught me, and it should explain to everyone’s satisfaction why we Canadians (a) have a holiday today (the 21st of May), and (b) celebrate it by going to the beach, getting drunk, and setting off firecrackers.

Now that we’ve cleared up that little mystery, I thought I’d honour the Queen (Victoria, that is) by making a list of the top ten reasons I wish I had lived during the Victorian era. This is a more challenging assignment today than it would have been when I was fourteen and fervently believed that I would be happier and more popular if I’d lived before the sexual revolution. In grade eight, my Victoriaphilia was very much a matter of wanting to wear puffed sleeves at balls where the boys would be obliged to ask the girls to dance instead of sitting around the gymnasium sprawled in those plastic elementary-school chairs, waiting for the 18 girls in our class to fall all over themselves competing for the 12 of them.

In the twenty-odd years since then, I’ve had plenty of exposure to the basic arguments against jumping in a time capsule and setting the dateometer for 1856. Indoor plumbing. Feminism. The Internet. These are twentieth-century innovations whose value is not to be underestimated – but they’re not quite enough to entirely eradicate my habits of nostalgia. Here, then, are my top ten reasons for wishing I’d been born in – oh, let’s say, 1837.

10) Freedom from irony. I’ve always been more Joshua Tree than Zoo TV. The problem with irony is that it’s addictive: the more you use, the higher the dosage needed to stave off an embarrassing sense of sincerity. With a birthdate in 1837, I figure I’d have a good sixty years of morally earnest William Wilberforces and Harriet Beecher Stowes before succumbing in my dotage to the witty parodies of Hilaire Belloc.

9) Increased likelihood of my becoming an authoress. If there’s anything you learn from writing a dissertation on mid-Victorian fiction, it’s that there was a lot more opportunity back then to publish long-winded three-volume novels with preposterous plot twists, stilted dialogue, and heavy-handed morals. There is plenty of literary mediocrity around today, of course – but I feel as if my particular absence of talent is better suited to the production of gothic fairy tales than Oprah’s-book-club selections.

8) Crinolines and lace collars.


With a birthday in the 1830s, I’d be just in time for the full-skirted Scarlett O’Hara dresses of the 1850s and ’60s, and then for little-girl pinafores a few years later.

7) Opportunity to use words like "disinterested," "felicity," and "superannuated" in daily conversation. Also phrases like "with courage burning in their ardent hearts," "gallant little fellow" and "a stitch in time saves nine."

6) The houses. They all had walled gardens instead of fenced yards, bowling greens instead of lawns, and secret passageways that you wouldn’t stumble upon until you’d lived there for several months.


5) Domestic skills. In the Victorian era, there would be a significantly increased likelihood that I would know how to make cream puffs, ride a horse, and sew a fine seam.

4) The Great Exhibition of 1851.


3) The illusion of change and the reality of stability. I can think of worse things than living through a century of peace and prosperity, at a time when what passed for social upheaval was the invention of the typewriter, and what passed for teenage rebellion was conversion to Roman Catholicism.

2) Serialized novels. Nowadays we wait on tenterhooks for the next episode of Lost or Battlestar Galactica, but then it was the novels of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

1) The bathing costume. Keep in mind: this was an era before the invention of the bikini wax, when plumpness was considered a sign of beauty and fresh butter and cream were thought to be good for you.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Day at the Beach in Early Summer

Bub is poised, right now, between two different kinds of impenetrability. During the long, long wait for language, I often wondered about the landscape of his mind. What did he think about? What were his thoughts, experiences, feelings? A few years from now, a second kind of impenetrability will begin to develop – a sense of privacy, interiority, introspection. Right now, though, he is translucent, filtering his experiences and observations through the ever less clumsy medium of language.

"We are all laughing together," he observed last night at the supper table. We were at the cottage with grandma and grandpa, looking out over a damp empty beach after hours of climbing sodden sand dunes. The Pie was stuffing her face full of banana cake, the icing forming a fluffy milk-mustache around her mouth. "The Pie is covered with … sludge!" Bub exclaimed, and our answering laughter had prompted his observation.

"Why are we laughing?" I asked and then answered my own question: "Because you’re so funny!" (We’re working on the concept of ‘why’.)

Bub has always enjoyed positive feedback, but he’s never been one to repeat an action for the sake of duplicating the response, so I was surprised when he attempted to repeat his comedic feat. "The Pie is covered with … cold winter!"


Earlier that day, a dialogue:

Pie: A flag!
Me: Yes, it’s the Canadian flag.
Pie: (vigorous head-shaking) No. Hockey flag!

Friday, May 18, 2007

Curiouser and Curiouser

(Continued from yesterday's post.)

Oh, how fun it was. My library talk on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was every bit as enjoyable as I had expected. The audience was well-read and responsive, the autism expert was far more willing to pull strings on Bub’s behalf than I had ever dared hope, and there was even a generous gift certificate for the campus bookstore to add a bit of frosting to the cake.

As promised, I’ll provide an additional excerpt from my talk.

The focus of my argument was on the reader’s problematic relationship to Christopher, and I began by cataloguing my own responses: I like Christopher, I feel protective of him (sometimes overwhelmingly so), and I laugh, often and affectionately, at jokes he is not at all conscious of making. All of these responses are generous and kindly meant, but there is a certain hierarchical superiority implicit in them. That hierarchy is disrupted, however, by Christopher’s savantism: in addition to liking, pitying, and laughing at him, I am also not infrequently intimidated by him. He labels his chapters using prime numbers, and while I puzzle over why the number 1 isn’t counted as a prime number, he performs dazzling feats of mathematical brilliance. It is disconcerting, again and again, to find myself noticing that this autistic boy, towards whom I feel so protective, is actually much smarter than I am.

My uncertainty only gets worse when Christopher introduces what is known as "the Monty Hall problem." You’re given a choice of three doors: two have goats behind them, one has a car, and you’ll win whatever is behind the door you choose. Once you’ve made your selection, the host opens one of the two remaining doors, revealing a goat. The dilemma is: Do you stick with the door you chose at the beginning, or do you switch?


The purpose of this exercise is to show the superiority of logic over intuition: to show, in fact, that Sherlock Holmes is a better detective than Miss Marple. Intuition tells us that there’s a 50-50 chance the car could be behind either door – and intuition is wrong. Christopher is able to demonstrate that the car is twice as likely to be behind door #2 (the door you didn’t choose initially). This solution is counter-intuitive but demonstrably correct.

What Christopher’s solution overlooks, however, is the psychological aspect of the problem. When I consider this dilemma, I am not merely trying to figure out where the car is – I’m also trying to protect myself from the disappointment that will ensue if I make the wrong decision. Assuming that the car is equally likely to be behind either door, I feel a strong impulsion to stick with my original choice. Partly that’s based on superstition (it seems like it would be bad luck to switch), but mostly it’s based on my anticipation of how I will feel if I end up with a goat instead of a car. If I stick with my original choice and win the goat, I’ll be disappointed, of course … but if I switch, and then discover that the car was behind my original door all along – well, then I’ll really be kicking myself.

As Christopher demonstrates, our intuition isn’t especially good at figuring out probabilities. But what about the emotional and psychological side? Apparently our intuition is wrong there, too: in Stumbling on Happiness, Gilbert suggests that my instinct to stick with my original choice is not at all unusual. He cites a study based on switching investments: Which feels worse – to lose money after switching to a new investment, or to lose money after forgoing the chance to switch? Nine out of 10 people assume that they will feel worse if they make a mistake (like switching doors or switching investments) than if they stick with the status quo and face the same consequences.

[The tenth person is, apparently, my husband. When I explained this part of my talk to him, he was incredulous. Why would you react differently to losing the car depending upon which door you chose? All I can say is that a roomful of vigorously nodding spectators seemed to know exactly what I meant.]

This is an aspect of the problem that Christopher never even considers: he doesn’t have the ability to imagine situations and determine how he will feel in them. For him, the Monty Hall problem is purely about mathematics and logic. One might think, then, that we are better equipped than he is to protect ourselves from the feelings of regret that would ensue from making the wrong choice. Maybe we don’t understand probabilities as well as Christopher – but at least we know ourselves, we know our feelings.

Not so much. According to Gilbert, our strongest regrets are for the opportunities we miss, not for the mistakes we make. When we take a risk and it backfires, we’re usually pretty good at rationalizing our decision. We say, "Well, that didn’t pan out, but I had good reasons to do as I did." We’re not nearly as good at rationalizing inaction, and so we kick ourselves hardest when we sit back and do nothing, letting opportunity pass us by.

[This rings true for me. The thing in my life that I should most obviously regret is my first marriage. But I can’t say I spend a lot of time beating myself up about it. Based on what I knew and how I felt at the time, I understand why I did what I did. And it didn’t turn out so badly after all. Being married to the wrong man kept me off the market until the right man reached the age of dateability. (The age gap between us was vast when I was midway through my M.A. and he was graduating from high school. A few years later it had narrowed considerably.) On the other hand, I’ve kicked myself black and blue in recent years for failing to dot my i’s and cross my t’s during my maternity leave after Bub was born, an apparently minor administrative omission which ended up resulting in a significant loss of job security.]

As much as we might like to think that our psychological intuition redeems our lack of rigorous logic, we may not be right. Christopher’s (often misplaced) confidence in his own rationality can – and should – shake our confidence in the reliability of the faculties we rely on as well.

In last week’s session, we looked at Ian McEwen’s Saturday and I commented that there is a degree of intimidation in most people’s relationship to the protagonist of that novel (a neurosurgeon). Brain surgery has become a euphemism we use for "stuff that’s really, really hard." If something is easy enough to be accessible to ordinary people, we say, "It’s not brain surgery" – or, alternatively, "It’s not rocket science." It’s no coincidence that Christopher wants to be an astronaut – that is, a rocket scientist. Math, like neurosurgery, has that intimidation factor: for those of us who are not neurosurgeons or rocket scientists, math ability tends to generate that kind of awe.

(Snip. Omitted section on the novel’s double ending, which balances readers’ emotional needs against Christopher’s esoteric interests, appealing to our protective instincts in one breath and then intimidating us in the next. Skip to the conclusion.)

Christopher’s mathematical brilliance is not a parlour trick, something he could use to win big money in Vegas – instead it functions as a key element of the relationship between narrator and reader. It keeps us off-balance, and it enables Haddon to use Christopher’s flawed perspective as a standpoint from which to make us more critically aware of our own.

*****

I thought about asking what your biggest regret is. But that's not actually as fun a question as it initially sounds, so I'll broaden out. Do you kick yourself hardest over the things you do, or the things you leave undone?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Reason, Intuition, and My Plans for This Evening

I volunteered to give a talk tonight at the public library. It's part of a series co-sponsored by the English department and the med school - they take four novels with medical themes and then pair up an English prof with a med-school prof who each give a half-hour talk about the novel. I'm excited about it, not least because I've been paired with the chair of autism research to talk about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This is the man Bub is on a two-year waiting list to see, and I'm hoping to be able to pick his brains a little bit before the evening is through.

I have a dearth of time for blogging this week, so I thought I'd post my opening remarks.

*****

I have long been a fan of detective fiction, and I’m also a big fan of the vast over-generalization. So I thought I’d start this talk by making a vast over-generalization about detective fiction. Detectives can be divided into two groups: there are detectives who solve crimes by relying on science, and then there are those who rely on intuition. A good example of the latter group is Miss Marple. In Agatha Christie’s novels, physical evidence usually functions as a red herring. Readers are invited to take notice of a footprint, or a strategically placed brooch, and these items distract us from the underlying relationships and psychological dynamics that will turn out to be the key to the mystery. That’s why someone like Miss Marple – who has spent her whole life listening to village gossip – is especially well-positioned to solve these crimes. She is deeply acquainted with the dark recesses of the human heart, and she’s adept at ferreting out the connections and motivations that a more superficial interpreter might miss.

Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, is the forerunner of the scientific detective – he is the one who pioneered the sharp attention to detail that led eventually to the CSI model of detection. Holmes is famous for his powers of deduction and for his sharp eye. He sees things – literal, physical things – that other people miss. In section 107 of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Christopher mentions that The Hound of the Baskervilles is his favourite novel. Christopher goes on to explain the points of resemblance between himself and Holmes: both are capable of emotional detachment, and both are capable of sharp observation.

What Christopher doesn’t realize is that this chapter is not the only reference to Sherlock Holmes in the novel: the title, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is actually a quote from a story called "The Adventure of Silver Blaze." The title of this novel is one example of our privileged knowledge as readers – Christopher, presumably, has no awareness of the title of the novel of which he is a part (indeed, the words of the title are the only words in the book that Christopher doesn’t control and produce).

As it turns out, "The Adventure of Silver Blaze" is a story that illustrates certain things about the way Christopher perceives the world. In the story, a horse mysteriously disappears from his stable in the middle of the night, and Holmes solves the mystery by observing that a dog who was kept in the stables did not bark at the time the horse went missing. The failure of the dog to bark suggests, of course, that the man who stole the horse must have been someone the dog knew and trusted.

I’ll confess that I didn’t catch the Sherlock Holmes allusion myself: it was pointed out to me in the book Stumbling on Happiness by psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The reason Gilbert mentioned the story was to show how unusual it is for anyone to notice things that fail to happen. Our minds are wired to notice things that do happen: we pick up changes in our environment, but it’s often difficult for us to detect the absence of change. On the whole this is a useful way for our brains to work: we cannot give equal attention to every single bit of physical evidence in front of us: the only way we can make it through life is by rapidly and instinctively sorting out all the sensory input we receive and paying conscious attention only to the things that are most likely to be significant. This is, in fact, precisely Christopher’s problem when he goes someplace new: he is busy processing all the new information – he can’t select just a few bits, but has to notice the exact number of cows and the exact pattern of their spots. Our processes of appraisal allow us to function without shutting down, but they also mean that, unlike Sherlock Holmes, we’re likely to overlook information that may be essential to solving the crime.

In the story of Silver Blaze, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle makes sure we notice how unusual Sherlock Holmes’ powers of detection are by contrasting his observations with those of other, more ordinary persons. In this case, Holmes has a conversation with Colonel Ross (who is investigating the crime). Colonel Ross asks him, "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" and Holmes replies:

"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
The Colonel is confused. "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That," Holmes responds, "is the curious incident."

Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant sleuth precisely because he notices things that other people do not – and the point of the story is that his mind works very differently from the way normal minds work. As readers we are invited to share Dr. Watson’s attitude towards Holmes, which is one of awestruck admiration. In The Curious Incident, though, when we recognize the similarities between Holmes and Christopher, our reaction might be a bit more complicated: we experience admiration but also concern, because Christopher is not simply a brilliant detective: he is also a boy with autism. As readers, we have an unusual relationship to Christopher – on the one hand, he has power over us, because he is narrating his own story, but on the other hand, we have an advantage over him because we are supposedly "normal" and he is not. Throughout the novel, Haddon constantly balances our awareness of Christopher's deficits with a growing awareness of our own.

(Snip.)

Maybe tomorrow I'll sum up some of my supporting arguments. I'll tell you how it goes.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

365 Days Later

It’s my first blogiversary, and I have only an hour left to celebrate. What should I do?

1) Host a debate: "blogiversary" or "blog birthday"? (Personally, I’ve always preferred blogiversary, but HBM likes blog birthday, and she speaks with authority, that woman. Plus – if it’s my blog birthday, then that means I’m almost like Gwen – and that makes me happy.)

2) Report that last night I had my very first bloggy dream. In it, I bumped into Antique Mommy, who was sipping coffee in a restaurant with her family. I ran up and gave her a big hug (much to her confusion) and then I left the restaurant and walked around downtown for awhile with Eminem. (I think he had a bit of a crush on me.)

3) Pick out my favourite posts. (I like this one. And this one. And this one. I don’t know that I like them best. But I like them.)

4) Meditate on the nature of blogging (oops, did that Friday).

5) Meditate on the nature of motherhood (oops, did that yesterday).

6) Give myself a blog make-over (oops, did that Saturday).

7) Go to bed and listen to the rain pattering on the roof while I snuggle up with The World According to Mimi Smartypants and my self-selected Mother’s Day gift, Unstrange Minds: Remapping the World of Autism.

8) Write up a linky and poetic description of my blog, its range of subject matter and its stylistic vagaries, a veritable compendium of all things BubandPie.

9) Settle at last, to my own satisfaction, the true spelling of my blogging pseudonym. Is it bubandpie? Ms./Dr./Professor Bub and Pie? BubandPie? B&P? (Is there something fundamentally wrong with me, a woman who is unable to devise a moniker without borrowing her children’s nicknames?)

Can you guess which options I picked?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mom-in-Waiting

"Daddy is a dad," Bub informed us the other day, "and Mama is a mom." (He has wonderfully round o’s, especially when he sees my husband on the computer and announces solemnly, "Daddy is fixing the blo-og.")

Despite its tautological structure, Bub’s pronouncement is not without meaning. It took me a long time to start feeling like a mom. I remember the first stirrings of momhood – they occurred when Bub outgrew his infant carseat at four months of age. Shlepping around the infant carrier had made me feel sore, exhausted, heavy-laden – but hoisting a wee baby-man on my hip was different. I could hold the baby with one hand and unlock the front door with the other, possibly even carry a few bags of groceries at the same time. My arms and hips felt strong enough for this job long before my faint heart did.

Picking Bub up at daycare evoked feelings of momhood too. Seeing him crawling on chubby legs towards the boisterous two-year-olds who were tumbling in and out of sandboxes, I recognized in him the kid he might become and started to perceive dimly that the woman who gave birth to such a boy-child must be, herself, a mom. In the moments before he saw me, I would hover at the back gate, enjoying that simple feeling of love, unmixed for the moment with exasperation or stress.

Somewhere along the line, momhood entered in and made itself at home. I became a mother three-and-a-half years ago when Bub was born, but I didn’t become a mom until much later. The Pie helped. She seemed to know instantly that I was her mom and to accept me as such. Where Bub had been rigid, cross, averse to babyhood with all its indignities, Pie melted against me, recognizing my chest as her head’s truest home. She still does that, nurses a cold by burying her curly head in the crook of my neck or dropping it dramatically on my shoulder.

I feel like a mom, now – so much so that I’m surprised, at times, by how much of parenthood I have yet to experience. When I look forward to my kids getting older, it’s usually because of the stuff I won’t have to do for them anymore. But every once in awhile I’m reminded that there are so many things about parenthood that haven’t even begun. Beach vacations, with little ones toasting marshmallows in their pyjamas. School buses, hopscotch, Santa Claus. I can get all choked up sometimes, contemplating how fleeting the elementary-school years will be, and then I catch myself up short and realize, they haven’t even started yet, woman – get a grip.

Some of the parenting rituals I look forward to the most I’ve done already in pantomime form. Halloween costumes. Rides at the fair. Trips to African Lion Safari. I buy candy at Easter and Halloween and then eat it myself; I get a little thrill when Bub says "Happy Mother’s Day, Mama!" even though he’s just parroting his father. It’s like our family is in a play, with hubby and I taking on the roles of prompter, ventriloquist, and puppeteer while the children remain happily oblivious to our incomprehensible antics. We’re artfully acting out the family we imagine ourselves becoming, meticulously posing the children on the merry-go-round even though we plan to exit the ride before it starts (there’s no point in scaring the poor children). Wait a year or too, we seem to say to the carousel horses with their mournful silver manes. We’ll be back.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Oh, Happy Day

So far today I have…

…gotten up with Bub a full eleven minutes before hubby did.
…not yet received a card of any kind.
…worked in the church nursery instead of relaxing through the service.
…not yet bought a card or gift for my own mother (the mall beckons).
…received this Skor-caramel apple and lots of tech support for my spiffy new blog template:


That’s got to be worth 50 hedons, at least.

Edited to add: If you've been having line-spacing problems after blockquotes and lists since switching to the new Blogger, check out this link, which has an easy fix. Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good Audience/Bad Audience

This time last year, I was in a blog-reading frenzy, clicking my way through the momosphere and gasping constantly in amazement and recognition. Every so often, my mouse would hover over the "Create Blog" button on the Blogger navbar – and then move away as I hesitated, dithered. After about ten days, I took the plunge and quickly discovered the seductive thrill of reaching an audience.

Audience is the very essence of blogging; it’s what makes a blog distinct from a private journal. And a fickle, fairweather friend one’s audience can be. Not the real audience, of course – not the smart, generous women who keep showing up day after day with their concern, their support, their considerable wit and intellect. No, I’m talking about the inner audience, the imaginary readers for whom my posts are written.

I’ve always had an inner audience – one of my favourite hobbies used to be performing my life for an imaginary set of spectators composed of the boy I liked in grade six, a girl who was always almost – but never quite – a friend in high school, and a few other random spectators from my past. I would populate my life with these people, imagine them sitting behind me on the bus or in front of me in class. We might have a reunion-style "What have you been up to?" conversation, or we might simply observe one another without acknowledging our past. The important thing was for these people to be surprised, impressed, taken aback by the distance between who I was before and who I am today. (My imagination is nothing if not ego-boosting.)

Sometimes, though, my inner audience would turn on me. When I fell flat on my face they would stand back, pointing and laughing at my humiliation.

A blog audience is kind of like that. As I write my posts they gather round my laptop, peering over my shoulder and letting out appreciative guffaws at all my weakest jokes, nodding sympathetically at my most embarrassing admissions. As fans and cheerleaders, this imaginary audience is a big part of what makes the act of writing possible. Right up until the moment I hit "publish," they embrace me with their unconditional love – but then they pass the baton to the real audience, and I find it’s usually a good idea to busy myself for awhile, distracting myself from the anxiety that occurs in those moments before the imaginary audience manifests itself in concrete, numerical form.

That is the daily cycle of blogging for me. Put the kids down for their naps and write a post. Hit publish and then go to the park. Come home and check comments, laughing out loud and nodding vigorously, dashing off a reply or two, until it’s time to start writing again.

Depression changes all that. There is a kind of sadness that wraps itself around a person, subtly altering the features of those around. "Do you ever feel as if I’m a stranger, that you have no idea what I’m thinking?" I asked hubby a few days ago. "No," he replied. "You’re pretty much an open book." I knew he wasn’t really a stranger – but that didn’t change the underwater feeling, as if I were submerged and his voice were reaching me from a long distance.

At times like this, my inner blog-audience becomes distorted, clownish. Their hoots of laughter turn mocking; their sighs of sympathy become pitying. Through their eyes I read my own writing and am revolted by my flippancy, my self-absorption (the things that I usually love about myself the most). Subtle dips in the number of hits, comments, or links suddenly seem symbolic of a larger exodus, the wholesale departure of an audience that has clearly become bored and disgusted by my inability to write sentences of less than seventeen words.

I know how lucky I am that such moods eventually depart, usually after only a day or two. But the path of motherhood is strewn with these times – miscarriages, weaning, ordinarily bouts of sleep-deprivation or PMS. The hormonal goggles through which we see ourselves and those around us are not always flattering.

I don’t think that blogging is really as damaging as it sometimes seems at such times – but it is a barometer, a desperately sensitive instrument that registers every ripple of self-hatred and self-doubt.

A Perfect Post – May 2007

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Strawberry Pie

[Snip: long, bragging post about Bub: His obedience! His willingness to eat strawberries and scrambled eggs! His newfound respect for my authoritah!]

And what is the Pie doing while Bub is busy asking permission and trying new foods?

I often feel guilty about how little I blog about the Pie. I keep a sharp eye on the list of categories over there on the sidebar, figuring that as long as the posts about "the little girl" amount to at least half the number of posts about "the little boy," I’m not doing too badly. After all, Bub has been around longer (almost exactly twice as long) – naturally I have more to say about him. But that’s not it, exactly. For me, most of the mental work of parenting revolves around the puzzle that is Bub. I parent him consciously, analytically, researching approaches and implementing them. With the Pie, however, my parenting is instinctive, responsive – she is so full of cues, demands, rewards.

More than that, though, there is a kind of elusive quality to the Pie – so much of who she is seems impossible to capture in words. I could tell about the time we went to Swiss Chalet – when the waitress took away my plate she tilted her head sadly and exclaimed, "Oh, my supper!" But words cannot do justice to her plaintive tone, her deep alto voice with its characteristic rising inflection.

Or I could blog about the way she graciously consented to drink some chocolate milk for breakfast this morning (breakfast being a bit of a problem each day). Chin down, bottom lip out, eyes round: "Chockit milk?" But I must leave to your imagination her absurd flirtatiousness, the extraordinary range of emotions invested in such a simple request.

Her hair is a mass of spirals when wet, and when it dries it’s a halo, fine as spider-webs. What she lacks in hair, she makes up in round cheeks and dark eyes – eyes that are wholly blue, with no inner ring of green or brown. The Pie is scrappy, determined, and playful, but when strangers come to visit she makes a bee-line for the kitchen, opening the cupboard doors and wedging herself between them, chin to chest. (I need to get her one of those camouflage onesies with the words "you can’t see me" printed in pink letters.)

A year ago this week, the Pie was weaning herself, hurling herself with abandon into the world of puréed pears and butternut squash. Now, she likes to stick a hand down my bra looking for my belly button – but when I pull up the bottom of my shirt she tugs it back into place saying, "Shut!" with a decided nod of the chin. She is orderly yet playfully defiant, aggressive yet shy. She totally defies my attempts to describe her.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Saga of a Smelly Dog

Before becoming a parent, one has a different perspective on many things. Babies are cute fashion accessories, misbehaving toddlers are evidence of bad parenting, and "farting" is the best term – clear, to the point, neither coy nor unnecessarily crude – to describe what happens when we break wind, pass gas, or let one rip.

As a child, I was raised to include "fart" in the same category as "hell," "crap," and "stupid." Toot was the term used in our house, a word that invariably submerged me in a sense of impotent shame. Simultaneously nerdy and embarrassingly onomatopoeic, "toot" (or, worse, "tooted," "tooter," or – my Dad’s favourite – "rooter tooter") was a word best left unsaid. That, I now perceive, was the parenting genius that motivated its selection in the first place.

My adult life affords few occasions for the use of the major euphemisms for flatulence (stink bomb, Dutch oven, butt trumpet … I was going to add "cutting the cheese," but actually, there are so many opportunities to use that one). Don’t get me wrong – I do not claim to be immune to the phenomenon, which occurs an average of 10-15 times per day for a normal adult human. I just find that in most cases, the event is better left unacknowledged. Even the courtesies of marriage can usually be met with a casual, "You might want to stay away from the danger zone here." The word "fart" now exists roughly in the same category as "snot" and "barf" – not a word I use every day, but no longer a subversively thrilling swear-word either. So when one of my children’s-lit students recommended Walter the Farting Dog for our class on picture books, I was sufficiently impressed to purchase a copy.

This was, needless to say, before I had children. I thought the book was funny and child-centered, following in the scatological tradition of Jonathan Swift, Roald Dahl, and Robert Munsch. As an instructor of children’s literature, I was steeped in the idea that children’s books are the product of adult imperialism. The grown-ups who write, publish, and buy children’s books co-opt the representation of childhood, indoctrinating children with stories that serve adult interests (lullabies! forcing children to sleep! – alphabets! forcing children to learn!).

Then I became a parent. And suddenly sleeping and learning didn’t seem like such bad things. Socialization and moral indoctrination seemed less like brainwashing and more like good parenting. Walter the Farting Dog languished on a little-used bookshelf while Bub and Pie explored books about letters and colours and pleasant piggies who would invariably fall into peaceful slumber on the last page. And then one day, the Pie unearthed Walter and I realized: This is a terrible book.


The illustrations are hideous. It is full of double-entendres, most of them aimed at adults. Each page features a graphic rendering of the puffs of air emanating from Walter’s rear while he plays with the children, gets blamed for the surreptitious emissions of Uncle Irv, and scares away a pair of stereotypically-rendered burglars who are making off with the family’s VCR.

The book is terrible because it is exactly what I thought it wasn’t: imperialistic. The whole point of scatological humour is that it breaks taboos. The parent’s role is to forbid – and reading bedtime stories about farting does little other than rob children of the fundamental joy of taboo-breaking. It is the child’s job to joke about farting, and the adult’s job to conceal all amusement. If the grown-ups start cracking scatological jokes, what’s left for a child to do?

(This, by the way, is what is meant by boundaries. Unless I am very much mistaken in my reading of the introductory chapters of Boundaries with Kids, boundaries are not about requirements and prohibitions so much as they are about a clear division of labour. Farting jokes and maniacal laughter = the kids’ side of the boundary. Stern looks and embarrassing euphemisms = the adults’ side.)

To be sure, farting need not be forbidden to be funny. It has its own inherent comic potential. Bub’s diet these days consists almost entirely of broccoli and chick peas, so our lives are accompanied by a constant rumbling soundtrack. Mostly these pops and rat-a-tats go unnoticed, but the other day one of them occurred at bath-time and Bub turned to me with a grin of delight. "Mama, did you hear that?" he asked, and you could just see the wheels turning as he realized, I did that with my bum!

There is a kind of natural pleasure in making ridiculous sounds with ridiculous parts of one’s body. Nevertheless, it is (or ought to be) an inviolable part of the child-adult contract that the child makes the farting jokes while the adult looks on with well-feigned disapproval.

Unfortunately, the Pie did not get the memo. So every night, now, she pulls out the book, gleefully exclaiming, "Farting Dog? Farting Dog?" and hubby and I respond with the following story:

Billy and Betty brought Walter home from the dog pound. "Nobody wanted him," said Billy. "But we love him!" said Betty. Their mother made them give Walter a bath. "His stomach must be upset!" she said. Then Father said it was time for him to go to the vet. The veterinarian examined him and put him on a special diet: he ate carrots, corn on the cob, french fries, and cat food. Then Uncle Irv came over.
("Uncle Irv!" Pie shrieks ecstatically at this point. "Uncle Irv!")

One day, Father said Walter had to go back to the dog pound. "No, no!" exclaimed Betty and Billy. But Father had made up his mind. That night, Walter ate a whole box of dog biscuits and then fell asleep on the couch. Some burglars came, and Walter …um …scared them away.
("Burglars! Run away!" Pie shrieks.)

"You saved us!" cried Mother and Father when they got up the next morning. "You saved the silverware! You saved our VCR!" And they all lived happily ever after.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Biography of a Period

The trouble with the arrival of my monthly visitor is that she’s such a freaking drama queen. It’s not enough, anymore, to tap politely on the door with a few vague back-cramps – she’s got to send telegrams two weeks ahead of time announcing her imminent arrival, advising me to stock up on sundries and reinforce the barricades. Maybe I’m just spoiled after my three-and-a-half-year hiatus (broken by only one brief visit between the weaning of Bub and the conception of Pie). I can’t quite get used to it, the gushes and splashes that defy even the most scientifically designed winged barriers.

I always send out an apology to my eleven-year-old self when I experience this kind of base ingratitude. It’s so easy to forget those years of poring over diagrams of ovaries and fallopian tubes, eagerly inspecting my underwear for signs of the yellowish discharge that would herald the approach of menarche. Exactly 365 days before my first period, I copied most of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret into my diary, colour-coding the quotes by topic, green ink for breast development and pink for menstruation. In those days, I eagerly welcomed these signs of my transformation from child to adult, pitying boys because they lacked so clear an initiation rite. I had read Then Again, Maybe I Won’t (Judy Blume’s guide to puberty for boys), so I knew about nocturnal emissions, but I wasn’t favourably impressed. The whole business seemed clumsy and embarrassing, not like the dignified crimson flow that would mark forever my departure from little-girlhood and make it at least theoretically possible to ask for a training bra.

I never thought of my monthly friend as "the curse" or "the witch" – I read about the differing cycles and fervently hoped that I would spend as much time as possible on the rag – 7 days out of every 21 would be ideal, I thought. Womanhood would be my constant companion, tangible proof of my mysterious body and its arcane powers of fertility.

I was part of what I’m sure must have been the very last generation of girls whose mothers bought them a belt for nighttime use. My mother initiated me into the mysteries of giant inch-thick Kotex pads with long strips of fabric on either end that could be threaded through the belt’s loops and whorls. During the day, I experimented with innovations like tabs, wings, dri-weave and sphagnum. When the new, discreet purse-paks came on the market, I hid the pink plastic squares in my gym bag and pretended not to feel embarrassed when I dragged it into the girls’ washroom with me at lunch-time. (I welcomed my period, but not the thought of the boys in my class cracking jokes about it with their newly unreliable voices.) There was only one reason for taking a gym bag into the washroom in those days before we were old enough to carry purses. And there was only one disposal box at my school, located not in an individual stall but rather out in the open, posted on a wall between the stalls and the paper towels.

As an obnoxious grade-six student, I used to spy on the senior girls’ washroom, hoping to catch someone in the act of putting something in that mysterious receptacle. When a friend was finally lucky enough to glimpse a pair of blue Tretorns heading toward the disposal as she peered out from under a closed stall-door, our attempts to play detective resulted in several months of bullying from the embarrassed girl and her posse of grade-eight friends.

I was never subject to severe cramps during my teenage years, though my best friend was. Once a month she would arrive at school dazed by her pain medication, unable to do more than grunt occasionally in response to my attempts at conversation. My cramps were never worse than a few twinges in my lower-back, a nice, friendly warning of a visit that was otherwise wholly unpredictable. I never settled into a regular cycle, never took for granted that the inner machinery was working properly. My monthly friend was more friendly than monthly, capricious, reassuring, welcome.

When I got pregnant only two months after going off the pill, I was amazed that my ovaries could do it – and when I miscarried a few days later, it seemed that maybe they couldn’t. She became my enemy for awhile, that old monthly friend – she and her cohorts, the negative pregnancy tests with their resolutely blank windows refusing to show even the shadow of a second line, no matter how many minutes I sat on the toilet, waiting. In the months between my miscarriage and the conception of Bub, she flirted with me, that witchy lady, arriving when least wanted then staying away for months at a time. She signified all that was possible and yet discouragingly out of reach.

These days, my reproductive system is becoming obsolete. I don’t plan to use it again, and the additional fanfare accompanying each period seems like over-compensation. Aunt Flo has become a histrionic gal in her old age, joining the Red Hat Society and throwing bridge parties for all her friends. "Look at me!" my uterus hollers out every five weeks. "I can still do it! I’m not ready to be put out to pasture – just imagine the nice healthy placenta I could build if you gave me the chance!" And I shake my head, trying to get used to the fact that I’m here, on the other side, with the promise of womanhood more than kept in these wee ones of mine, my little Bub and little Pie.

A Perfect Post – May 2007

Monday, May 07, 2007

Five Non-Posts

Better Living Through More Sleep
Great title, eh? I thought so, anyway. Trouble is, I don’t have an actual post to back it up. I did get more sleep than usual last night (in that 7.5 hours, punctuated by only one middle-of-the-night visit from a small boy looking for his doggie and blankie constitutes a better-than-usual night of sleep), and I am feeling pretty good today because of it. But that’s really all I have to say about that.

Here are a few more posts that I’m too lazy to actually write…

The End of Childhood
In children’s literature classes, we like to grab our students’ attention by making absurd pronouncements about the "invention of childhood." Childhood is not something that exists in nature; instead, it was produced by the Victorians, who invented it by (a) outlawing child labour and (b) creating distinctive fashion trends. For the first time in human history, childhood became a protected space, a time of morally instructive innocence. Wordsworth is to blame for this. He’s the one who came up with the whole "trailing clouds of glory" thing, postulating that children are closer to heaven than their jaded adult counterparts. The rest of the culture responded by dressing their children up in frilly Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits.

The evidence for this hypothesis is found primarily in portraiture. When you look at this Renaissance portrait, for instance, you will instantly perceive that childhood has not yet been invented:


Similarly, when you look at these outfits, you will perceive how rapidly our culture is dismantling childhood:



(Cue meditation on Shrek, Bratz, Walter the Farting Dog, violence on TV, little boys who give me the finger as I drive by their house, and unruly offspring everywhere. The end.)

Boundaries
Everyone knows how important it is to give children boundaries. There’s nothing worse than parents who don’t let their children know where the boundaries are. And if you’re like me, you’re saying to yourself right now, "I think I am one of those parents. What exactly are boundaries, anyway?"

I don’t know.

Self-Deprecation
True or False: Self-deprecation is a sign of low self-esteem.
True or False: Communities in which self-deprecation functions as social currency are fundamentally unhealthy.
True or False: If I talk a lot about my anger, pain, boredom and discouragement, my readers will not be able to contextualize these confessions or realize that I am actually a loving, imaginative, plenty-good-enough-thank-you-very-much mother.

Discuss.

Bedtime Conversation
"How about Carumba, Mama?"
"No, no more stories. It’s time for lights out."
"Mama to lie down?"
"Okay."
[eye-to-eye, whispering] "I’ve got your glasses. I’ve got your nose. I’ve got your eyes. I’ve got your mouth."
"I’ve got your hand. I’ve got your shoulder. I’ve got your cheek. I’ve got your ear." [he turns to bring his ear close enough for me to kiss]
"Are you happy, Mama?’
"Very happy. Are you happy?"
"Yes."
"I’m glad."
"Glad. I’m glad."
"I love you very much."
[alarmed – he thinks I’m going] "Mama to lie down?"
"Okay. … Do you want me to shut the door or leave the door open?"
"Door open."
"Okay. Nighty-night. Sleep tight. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. I’ll see you in the morning."

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Best Medicine

My husband loves to laugh. It is a desire that is at constant war with his other main passion: sleep. To sleep? Or to stay up and watch the Colbert Report? It is a constant dilemma.

By contrast, I seem to have an unusually low humour-seeking drive. When I flick on the TV, I don’t automatically go to the Comedy Network. Although I enjoy laughing with friends, I don’t deliberately seek out friendships with people because they make me laugh. My favourite kinds of humour are personal, anecdotal, self-deprecating – there is a kind of sidelong quality to the things that make me laugh, as if they’re doing it by accident.

To illustrate this point, I asked hubby the other night to name the "Five Funniest Things." After what I considered to be a lot of needless quibbling about the exact definition of the word "thing," he responded by making a number of increasingly fine distinctions: Stephen Colbert back when he was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, or Sarah Silverman in the first episode he saw of The Sarah Silverman Show but not the second. Finally, he settled on this:


and this:


Then the question was turned on me, and I mentioned this book:


and this one:


and (most recently) this one:


(Have you noticed that books-based-on-blogs are actually funnier than the online versions? Is it because we can really immerse ourselves in the blogger’s voice? Or is it that we can read them while supervising exams, struggling to contain our snorts of laughter so as not to distract the students?)

Despite our divergent senses of humour, hubby and I can agree on at least one thing, our joint nomination for Funniest Man Alive:



(The first picture was too small, so I picked out another one - but then I thought, why not have both? Because it's Hugh Laurie! Except that you'd be surprised at how many photos of Hugh Grant and Hugh Jackman come up when you do a Google Image search on Hugh Laurie. Not that that's a bad thing. All Hughs are good, really. I would have named Bub Hugh if hubby hadn't vetoed it.)

Besides being hilarious in roles ranging from British fop (Blackadder, Jeeves and Wooster) to American smart-ass (House), Hugh Laurie is also the source of my favourite definition of humour. In Maybe Baby, when his character comes up with the brilliant idea of writing an autobiographical script about infertility (without his wife’s knowledge and against her will), he describes it as "a real modern tragi-comedy about life and the absence of life, with jokes too, but proper jokes – sad jokes, which are the best kind."

I’ve always remembered that line because for me, too, the best comedy is character-driven and more than a little dark. I get stressed out when the sole purpose of something – a book, a television show, or a blog post – is to be funny. We call people brave when they write honestly about difficult or shameful feelings, but that kind of writing is safe and conservative compared to that produced by the true risk-takers, the humorists. What if nobody laughs? It’s always nice to have a fall-back position: "Oh, I wasn’t being funny! That was a serious philosophical analysis of the construction of snot and poo in post-modern Western culture."

It’s a losing game, this business of being funny. The funnier you are, the more people expect to be amused, entertained, and startled into gales of laughter (you can see the dilemma: how do you keep startling people who come to you expecting to be startled?). It’s easy to be funny when nobody’s expecting it – in the midst of a serious post, you tuck away a little zinger that takes readers by surprise. To be consistently funny through an entire post – much less an entire blog – is a gargantuan task, reserved for the truly courageous.

I admire humorists, but I don’t usually read their blogs. In most of my favourite reads, wit is the appetizer rather than the main course. But every once in awhile I like to go to one of those restaurants where you can forgo the main course altogether and order a platter of bacon-wrapped scallops and breaded mozzarella sticks with a side order of spinach dip and Thai spring rolls. The ROFLs are kind of like that for me – Mrs. Chicky and Metro Mama pull together all the best laugh-out-loud moments from a blogosphere that is about so much more than just being funny.

The post I’ve nominated for this month’s ROFL awards is a great example of my favourite kind of humour – it is real, and personal, and shot through with sadness. Cinnamon Gurl chronicles the closure of the All-Night Breastaurant with a journalistic detachment that made me laugh so hard I felt like crying.

April '07 ROFL

*****

While we’re on the subject of humour, here are my celebrity look-alikes. After Mimi referred to me as Scully-esque, I enthusiastically uploaded several photos, only to discover that (a) Gillian Anderson did not show up as a match, and (b) the only person who did show up consistently was Hillary Clinton.



*****

Weekend Discussion Topic: What’s your list of Funniest Things? And what do the things you find funny reveal about you?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Bloggy Christmas Carol

As I fell asleep last night, mulling over yesterday's post on admiration and happiness, I found myself haunted by a pair of ghostly visitors: the Ghost of Relaxation Present and the Ghost of Achievement Yet-to-Come. These spectres have apparently been reading Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, because in their communications to me they borrowed Gilbert's terminology of "hedons," an imaginary measure of the units of pleasure conferred by a given activity.

In my dream, I was sitting at my desk when, with a sharp crack and a faint jangle of chains, the Ghost of Achievement Yet-to-Come appeared at my side. He had a long white beard and an even longer pointy cap, and when he spoke it was with a reassuringly wise-sounding British accent.

A: Good evening, Bubandpie. I see you are working on the syllabus for your upcoming children's literature class. Allow me to assure you of how impressed I am by your forethought and application. Although planning a syllabus can be irksome, you will find that once you get started, the task can be quite pleasant, yielding a steady reward of 10 hedons per hour. And when you include the contemplation of future achievement represented by today's labours, the total hedonic output reaches 20 hedons/hour - an admirable rate, I'm sure you'll agree.

[At this moment, I became aware of the Ghost of Relaxation Present lounging indolently on my couch. He was an enormously fat but jolly man, bearing a startling resemblance to Robbie Coltrane.]

R: 20 hedons per hour? Ha! I'll give you 50 hedons if you stop working right now and watch TV instead. And if you eat a few of these brownies while you're at it, I'll throw in an extra 25 - a kind of bonus for ye. They're the kind with milk chocolate chunks in them...

A: (gazing with ill-concealed distaste upon R., who grins and pops a brownie in his mouth) My worthy colleague makes a compelling argument, but keep in mind that if you take his offer, I'll be forced to deduct 5 hedons per hour as a Guilt Tax.

R: Forget the guilt - what A. isn't telling you is that his Guilt Tax can be exacted only until your Capacity for Rationalization kicks in - and that's usually about five minutes after the first hedon is deducted. My offer still stands: 74 hedons for TV and brownies, after taxes.

A: Much as I respect my esteemed associate, I'm afraid my dear R. may have failed to draw your attention to the Worry Penalty. As long as your syllabus remains undone, you'll be paying fees on a sliding scale, starting at one hedon per hour but increasing exponentially until the first day of class.

R: (snorting derisively) I can cut your Worry Penalty in half using my Compelling Distraction spell. Don't forget, Lost is on at eight, and two Worry Penalties are waived whenever the Others do something mysterious or annoying, which works out to an average of eight times per episode. The enigma of Juliet alone should be enough to eliminate all worry penalties until the end of the season. Is she an Other? Is she loyal to Jack? Will she replace Kate in Jack's affections? There's only one way to find out!

A: (throwing in the towel) You win for now, R. But I'll be back!

[the next day]

A: Good morning, Bubandpie. How were those hedons last night? I hope they were worth it. (shakes head doubtfully)

R: Hey, Bubandpie, old pal! Great episode, eh? Wanna go to the mall? I can offer you 40 hedons, minus 10 for sore feet, but I'll throw in an extra 15 if you stop for a latte.

A: Consider, though, the delights of a job well done! That has to be worth at least 10 hedons ... but let's set that aside right now. Remember those summer courses you took as an undergrad? Do you recall the dull, ignorant American literature prof who droned on every morning about Faulkner while seriously underestimating the value of Poe and Hawthorne? Now recall your drama prof - his energy, his enthusiasm for the subject, the way he inspired you to read more about Medea and the Commedia dell'Arte. Now, how do you really want to spend this morning?

[The Ghost of Achievement Yet-to-Come nods victoriously as I open up my laptop, but then freezes in dismay as I load up the Blogger Dashboard.]

A: Foiled again!

R: Bwahahahahahaha!!!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Admiration

Bruno Bettelheim had a lot of bad ideas. He’s the psychotherapist responsible for the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism; he also analyzed fairy tales, opining that the "blood in the shoe" in the Grimm Brothers’ version of Cinderella (after the ugly stepsisters cut off their heels and toes to fit into the glass slipper) represented menstrual blood. (He also noted that the French word for "glass slipper" was remarkably close to the word for "fur slipper" and you can guess where he was going with that.)

Not all of his ideas are bad, though. I often return to his theory about the moral purpose of fairy tales. Reward and punishment are not the main point; rather, fairy tales inculcate morals by indicating as clearly as possible whom readers are meant to admire. "It is not the fact that virtue wins out in the end which promotes morality," Bettelheim writes in The Uses of Enchantment, "but that the hero is most attractive to the child … The question for the child is not ‘Do I want to be good?’ but ‘Who do I want to be like?’"

That rings true for me – truer than the theory I came across recently that all human actions have one fundamental motivation: the pursuit of happiness. In Stumbling On Happiness, Daniel Gilbert quotes Blaise Pascal who claims that "All men seek happiness. …This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves." I do not doubt that a sufficiently creative observer could unearth a happiness-seeking motive in just about any action, but it seems unlikely to me that our decisions invariably stem from such calculations. After the fact, we may be able to say, "Oh, I did that because I thought it would make me happy," but at the time, our only thought, our only impulse, might be pure desire: "I want that, whether it makes me happy or not." I remember reading about the Brontë sisters as a fourteen-year-old girl and weighing their artistic genius against the bleakness of their lives. Would I be willing to endure chilblains at Haworth parsonage in exchange for having written Jane Eyre? I could never decide.

The urge to become what we admire is an elemental desire, not unlike sexual desire. As Mrs. Kensington says of Austin Powers, "Women want him; men want to be him." Both urges exist independently of our calculating, happiness-seeking drives. We do not always pursue romantic relationships with those we believe will make us happy. "I’d rather be unhappy with him than happy without him," Agatha Christie said of her husband Archie (and she was). I always recognized instinctively what she meant. Desire to have, like desire to be, is not always altered by the promise of suffering.

Perhaps because it is so linked to desire, admiration can always be taught or directed – at least not using ordinary methods. Children’s admiration flows in ways that parents cannot fully control. Despite our best efforts, our children may admire Barbie, the Bratz, or Britney Spears. When I was a teenage babysitter, one of my charges cited her other babysitter, Stacey Capp, as an authority on some subject. "I am not an admirer of Stacey Capp," I said drily and the girl stared at me in astonishment. "Oh, I am!" she declared fervently. There is something unguarded and whole about the admiration children bestow in that haphazard, casual way.

Admiration does not always attach to those who have accomplished something worthy or difficult: it springs up spontaneously, before we have time to analyze the value of the object. I want that, we think, when we see in someone that luminous outline of what we might become. Our most rewarding accomplishment aren’t necessarily the hardest or the most important – they’re the ones that allow us to step into the shoes of those we admire.