Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Farmer's Markets are Evil

I went in to get six ears of corn. I came out with:

  • half a litre of maple syrup
  • one pkg. soft all-butter ginger cookies
  • half a dozen fresh-baked tea biscuits, a perfect vehicle for the ...
  • ... two kinds of homemade jam (raspberry and strawberry-rhubarb).

I got all the way to the car before a store employee came running out after me, carrying the full bag of corn I had left in the cart.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Doggone It

I’ve always liked mirrors. When I was a child, I would run to find one anytime I started crying, fascinated by the tears streaming down my face, the growing blotchiness of my cheeks, the green glimmer of the irises in my bloodshot eyes. To this day, I sometimes lean close to the mirror, admiring my eyelashes and the freckles splashed across my nose.

All of which is to say, it’s not a huge stretch for me, really, to do the Stuart Smalley meme Blog Antagonist dreamed up and Joy, Of Course tagged me for. My task is to think of ten things I like about myself. The hard part will not be thinking of them; it will be hitting “publish” on this one and thus defying the code of self-deprecation that I imbued with my mother’s milk.

1. I am good to myself. I take enormous pleasure in my achievements, including such things as dusting the piano every two weeks, getting the whole newspaper read before noon, and playing with my children in the back yard. I am not often weighed down by guilt. I reward myself with chocolate and ice cream as often as I deem necessary.

2. I know the meaning of the words gregarious, lugubrious, diaphanous, and hippopotamus. (And I can spell them without the aid of a dictionary.)

3. The forgiveness factor: I rarely hold grudges and usually find it easy to see another person’s side of the story. I am not quick to take offense.

4. I read quickly and voraciously.

5. Lateral thinking. In my adult life, my fiction-writing skillz have proven to be far less impressive than my 12-year-old self fondly hoped, but my creativity does emerge in analytical settings, where I perceive connections between such unlikely pairings as Harlequin romances and Margaret Atwood, autism and Greek tragedy, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Christianity, or Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and toddler-rearing.

6. My hair. It’s a dark chestnut brown, with auburn highlights where the sun strikes it. And I have brows and lashes to match.

7. My wrists, ankles, and shoulders. No matter how ungainly my midsection becomes, they help maintain an illusion of slenderness.

8. I have a sneaking affection for many of my faults. I am deeply competitive, for instance – so much so that I avoid most competitive situations because I cannot handle them gracefully. I have a phone-phobia, and I’m devoid of most social graces like remembering birthdays or participating in prolonged goodbyes. I have no small talk.

9. Emotional intuitiveness. I always know what I think and feel about things, and I usually know what other people are thinking and feeling as well.

10. When I was seventeen, I did a dramatic recitation from The Fantasticks for the S.H.A.R.E. banquet (Saunders High Achievers Recognition Evening). Usually the evening featured a skit, but that year I was the only person in the drama program who achieved marks high enough to be recognized, so it had to be a monologue. The high point of the piece was my fervent plea, “Please, God, please – don’t let me be normal!” I like to believe that prayer was heard and answered.

Now it’s time for the tagging (rubbing hands together in sadistic glee). Who should I victimize pick? How about Omaha Mama, Aliki, and Pieces? You’re it!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Weekend Update

Now updated with one more update!

(In which I emulate J.K. Rowling and try to tie up all the loose ends from my previous posts.)

Computer Crash Update
It was a faulty hard-drive, which has now been replaced. Irretrievably lost are the following items:

  • Twelve years’ worth of personal emails, including all the flirtatious courtship messages hubby and I exchanged back when we were “just friends.”
  • About four weeks’ worth of lecture notes, most of which still exist on paper.
  • The syllabuses (syllabi?) I was preparing for my fall courses.
  • The $500 it cost to replace the hard drive and purchase Microsoft Office rather than re-installing the ancient Office ’98 I was using before.

Avalanche Ranch Update
We never went back.

Day-Care Update
A few days ago, I got a call from a nursery school right around the corner, one that comes highly recommended by a friend who sent her daughter there last year. They have spots available in their morning program, which mirrors a JK curriculum, except in what they call “a more nurturing environment.” They have a 2:16 ratio, with an additional supply teacher who comes in to assist any children with special needs. I can drop Bub off as early as 8:45, which means I’ll have time to go in and settle him down before leaving to teach my 9:30 class. Also, they’re a co-op, which means the tuition is less than half that of a Montessori school.

Just talking to the teacher was enough to lift a burden of anxiety I didn’t even know I was carrying. When I told her about Bub’s tendency to melt down at the slightest reprimand, she said, “Wow! It sounds like he’s a three-year-old!” I walked over with the children yesterday and sat in on a day-camp they’re running through the summer months. The preschool is located in a church basement, and compared to the day-care centers I toured a few weeks ago, it’s old and shabby. But it’s a veritable wonderland, with puppets and easels and a building center with enough blocks to create a fort large enough to hide in. Although the room was filled with children, it seemed quiet and peaceful, with music playing in the background. When Pie tried to leave, Bub went back in on his own, calling back to us, “Come on, let’s go play!” I felt safe there; I felt at home.

I have an interview on Tuesday with a home-care provider who lives right down the street; if she is as nice as she seemed on the phone, we may have an arrangement I can live with for the fall.

Autism Update
The long-awaited appointment at the PDD Diagnostic Clinic is finally scheduled for late September. It’s a two-day process, with the second day of testing occurring 4-5 weeks after the first one. So by late October/early November, we should have some of the answers we are looking for.

Little Gym Update
The third class was a breakthrough. After the disaster that first week, I was relieved when Bub managed to play happily apart from the group the following week - he wasn't participating, exactly, but at least he was having fun. But yesterday was different. When Bub hung back at the beginning, unsure about going in, his new friend Austin grabbed him by the hand and pulled him into the room. He ran in a circle with the other children. He waited his turn to go across the bars. He sat by the wall to listen to brief instructions. During the open ball-play he mimicked the other children, setting his ball down when they did and throwing it up in unison. At the end, he sat down for circle time and did a series of actions in concert with the others.

In the meantime, Pie and I hung out in the lobby, where she seemed intuitively to understand that there was no point begging to go in, that she wasn't allowed. So we read nursery rhymes and played with toys while I chatted with Austin's mom, who is just as kindredly as she appeared on our first meeting. We dissected Harry Potter and pooled our knowledge of autism while our sons joined forces in the gym, teaching one another how to be friends.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Turkish Delight


We’ve been giving Bub a jelly bean every time he goes pee on the potty.

This reward system would be a lot more effective if he actually ate the jelly beans. He did try one, and then spit it back out again, gagging. But he still likes them – when I give him one he rolls it between his finger and thumb, places it carefully in his ear, and looks startled when I scream and pull it out again. Eventually, he gets distracted and leaves it on the floor.

That’s where the Pie comes in.

Unlike her brother, the Pie loves jelly beans. She will sit on the potty, straining with all her might to produce a tiny little dot of poo and then jump up saying, “I did it! I want a jello bean!”

She gets one every time her brother does, of course, in addition to the ones she scavenges from under the coffee table after Bub has abandoned them. Yesterday, she found a little cherry-red bean on the kitchen floor. I had warned Bub repeatedly that he needed to put it in his mouth (not his ear), or else Pie would get it, but he took that advice in the spirit of philosophical dissent with which he receives all such words of counsel. So when Pie found her rightful booty, I hesitated, fatally.

“Whose jelly bean is that?” I asked her in a warning tone.

She froze, closing her fist over the contraband and looking carefully away from it. “It’s mine?” she said hopefully.

“I think it’s Bub’s jelly bean,” I admonished. “You should give it back to him.”

“No,” she objected mildly, “It’s mine.” Then, with a sudden movement, she popped it in her mouth, just as Bub came into the kitchen.

His face was a mask of horror. “You, you, you – you stole it!” he spluttered, aghast.

Pie chewed vigorously. “It’s gone!” she announced at last.

And some people thought stealing the duck was bad.

*****

Happy birthday, little Pie! You are lying and stealing, discovering your desires and pursuing them with vigour. “I want a yellow shirt!” you announced yesterday when I found you in your crib, stripped down to a diaper and pointing insistently at the dresser. “I want a hockey stick!” you told your dad, when he asked what you wanted for your birthday. “I want a jello bean!” you announce periodically throughout the day, gazing longingly at the kitchen cupboards.

The only thing stronger than your sense of greed is your powerful sense of self. “I’m Cate!” you announce confidently whenever confused grown-ups ask nonsensical questions like “Are you a sweetie? Are you my little girl? Are you a Pie?” No. You’re Cate. You wear the name I chose for you with panache, wholly unaware that so essential a part of your identity could have been selected by another, long before you were born.


The birthday girl ... and her hockey stick.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Big Schmooze

Momish and Luisa Perkins have recognized me with a Schmooze Award! This award is especially generous coming from Luisa, since she also dubbed me a Rockin’ Girl Blogger nearly two weeks ago (an eternity in blogging time), but I’ve been too self-preoccupied lately even to acknowledge, much less pass on that particular honour. That such a lapse in good blog-citizenship should be rewarded with a “Community Involvement Award” speaks to the generosity of the blogosphere, our ability to recognize that life sometimes gets in the way of good blogging (and vice versa).

Momish provides this definition of “schmoozing” (she has quoted it, but I don’t know from where – it’s not from the original source of the award, so I can only assume it is one of those collaborative efforts of the blogosphere, something that has grown and developed as this meme has made its way from blog to blog):

Schmoozing is the natural ability “to converse casually, especially in order to gain an advantage or make a social connection.” Good schmoozers effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship.

I have never been a schmoozer, a personality quirk that has impeded my career considerably. I’ve sat on interview committees and watched job-candidates schmooze with blinkered intensity, focusing their remarks strategically on the perceived power-brokers. It’s a valuable skill, and one I sadly lack in real life.

But my blogging personality is a bit different from my real-life personality: I am much more of a meeter-and-greeter in the blogosphere, far more likely to cultivate relationships, even in the face of some initial resistance. If you showed up at my church next Sunday, I would not be the one rushing up to pump your hand. In blogland, though, it’s different: I like nothing better than stumbling upon a brand-new blog and being the first to say hello, unless it’s helping newcomers with the technical difficulties that I puzzled over myself only a few months ago.

The word “schmooze” implies some degree of self-interest, and I think that’s wholly appropriate. We’re not completely selfless as bloggers, are we? We get out there commenting for a reason. Self-interest may be foundational to commenting behaviour, but the superstructure is more complex – I think commenting often has to do with paying it forward, passing on what we’ve received, knowing that sometimes our words are the only lifeline pulling someone through. Only yesterday, I cast my burdens upon the blogosphere, and you guys picked them up and carried them for me. The feeling of relief was immediate, and transforming: my shoulders felt about a hundred pounds lighter, and after reading your comments, I got up and started cleaning my house (much in the manner of Peter’s mother-in-law who was healed of a fever and jumped up to prepare dinner).

The task of passing on this award requires me to think about what I consider to be good blog citizenship. During the recent discussion at BlogRhet on comment reciprocity, I suggested that not everyone can or should return every visit/comment. It’s not just the “big bloggers” who have to prioritize: many of us, when faced with constraints on our blogging time, have to choose how to engage the blogosphere. Should we focus on acknowledging newcomers? Should we seek to diversify our blogroll? Should we limit ourselves to a few deeper friendships? I’m not convinced that any one of these options is better or more community-minded than the others.

There are ways of being a bad member of the blogging community, of course. One can comment-bomb a blog right up until the point of inclusion in the blogroll, and then disappear. One can choose to suck up only to the big-time bloggers, leaving behind anyone whose readership won’t provide the same bang for one’s commenting buck. I have to say, though, I’ve seen almost nothing of that in my meanderings through the blogosphere. I’m na├»ve and not terribly observant, of course, but still – I think most of us are commenting in good faith, balancing our lives and our blogs as best we can. We are all Rockin’ Bloggers, if by “rockin” we mean "former high-school nerds who now have babies and never get out but spend our time writing funny/sweet/insightful things on the internet."

That said, I will single out three bloggers whose engagement in the blogosphere demonstrates their sensitivity, supportiveness, and generosity. You guys rock.


1. Her Bad Mother. She and Sandra (formerly known as Sunshine Scribe) were the first two commenters on my blog. HBM is the classic blog extravert. She still pops by here occasionally, and I understand when she’s not able to read every post I write. We keep bumping into each other, though, on newbie blogs – it’s kind of irritating, actually, because she often beats me to the punch, getting in her comment on a newborn blog-baby while I’m still out shopping for onesies and a blanket. She’s an organizer, an includer, a schemer of schemes. This community matters to her, a lot, and she has had to develop creative ways to remain engaged in it, even though we PERSIST in driving more and more readers to her blog.

2. Mad Hatter. Opting out can be good blog citizenship too. I still don’t fully countenance the break Mad took last month, but she did it for the right reasons – to spend time with her daughter, to regenerate, to go away and dream it all up again. I think of Mad as a blog introvert, even though her sense of community is highly developed. She co-sponsors the Just Posts and is generous with her linkage and awards. Even so, she goes deep – she devotes a lot to her relationships, and she chooses her words with extraordinary care.

3. Dani (from Postcards From the Mothership). Whenever I visit Dani’s blog, I feel as if she’s grabbing me by the arm and pulling me into a really good party. People are gathered around the kitchen table (all the best parties end up in the kitchen), sipping coffee and nibbling on some really yummy snacks. The conversation is relaxed, sparkling, and honest. I feel immediately at home. Dani has the gift of hospitality and it glows in everything she writes.

(Confession: While I composed this post on blog/life balance, my children were playing quietly and happily upstairs. When they came back down, the Pie’s head was completely saturated with a paste made of moisturizing lotion and translucent powder. I discovered this by asking, “What are you covered with?” and Pie answered, “It’s lotion! Bub put it on to make me feel better!”)

*****

While we’re on the topic of being good neighbours, here’s a good cause, with lots of excellent prizes. Go check it out!

Love for Parker

*****

Edit: Linking problems appear to have been solved by the expedient of erasing and retyping all quotation marks. I guess Blogger doesn't like the updated version of Microsoft Word I installed after my computer was resurrected from complete hard drive failure.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Local Mom at Loose End After Family Booted from VBS

A local mom is scratching her head after her family was asked to leave the local Vacation Bible School. "I had cleared my calendar for this," Bubandpie explains. "I'm not sure how to put the week in now."

Sources at the church confirm that there has been a parting of ways. "After yesterday, all parties have agreed that Avalanche Ranch will run more smoothly without the involvement of the Bubandpie family," the camp director told local media.

This decision means that the camp must scramble to find a new Crafts and Missions director. Ms. Bubandpie had been slated to run the crafts table, while supervising her two-year-old daughter. "The little girl would not behave," reported an eye-witness. "During the Chester Chipmunk skit, she repeatedly interrupted by shouting, 'Where'd the squirrel go?'"

Of greater concern, however, was the behaviour of Bub, a three-year-old boy. According to observers, Bub could not seem to understand that he was meant to stay with the Green Papaya group. He cried, clung to his mother, refused to give his name when asked, and disrupted the class by playing with contraband hula hoops instead of sitting quietly at a table with the other children.

Camp participants were dismayed when Bubandpie left the scene in tears. "I hope she gets some counselling," one concerned churchgoer commented. "This is just embarrassing to watch."

At press time, it remains unclear whether the Bubandpie family will return to Avalanche Ranch. "They're welcome to sit in on the Campfire Singsong," the director told reporters. The teacher in the 3-5 year room wasn't so sure. "It's important for the children to follow the structure of the program," she explained. "We need them to sit still so they can be told about the love of God."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and the Moral Ambiguities


Okay, you've had two days to read the book. It's time for some spoilers!

"Hush! Not so loud," said Edmund; "there's no good frightening the girls. But have you realized what we're doing?"

"What?" said Peter, lowering his voice to a whisper.

"We're following a guide we know nothing about. How do we know which side that bird is on? Why shouldn't it be leading us into a trap?"

"That's a nasty idea. Still - a robin, you know. They're good birds in all the stories I've ever read. I'm sure a robin wouldn't be on the wrong side."

"It if comes to that, which is the right side? How do we know that the Fauns are in the right and the Queen (yes, I know we've been told she's a witch) is in the wrong? We don't really know anything about either."

"The Faun saved Lucy."

"He said he did. But how do we know?"

This is a quotation I always haul out when we study The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in my children's literature classes. Narnia is a world devoid of moral ambiguity. Characters are what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading fairy tales (and The Secret Garden) is reliable; and those who provide aid usually prove to be on the right side. Edward's moral relativism is a pose, a spurious and hypocritical form of rationalism designed to conceal what deep down he knows to be true: that the White Witch is evil (like the Snow Queen she's based on) and the Turkish Delight she offers is a baited snare.

The converse to C.S. Lewis's novel is R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. In that book, the conflict between pirates and gentlemen is drained of moral meaning. Though the so-called gentlemen fly the Union Jack and use terms like "honest" and "faithful" to describe members of their party, they are lawless and greedy, just like the pirates - and in the end they maroon the remaining pirates rather than taking them home to face the King's justice. Characters are never what they appear; knowledge gleaned from reading adventure stories is misleading; and those who provide aid usually prove to be the most duplicitous and dangerous pirates of all. When moral language is used in Treasure Island, it is to veil ulterior motives. There is no choice between good and evil - only between different varieties of corruption.

The Harry Potter series neatly straddles these two approaches to the problem of good and evil. Almost every book in the series has been an object lesson in the principle that good people can come in mean-tempered and greasy-haired packages. Book IV (Goblet of Fire) is tediously plotted and far too long, but it amply demonstrates the reverse principle: in that novel, Mad-Eye Moody not only helps Harry every step of the way, but also demonstrates an appreciation for honour and courage that makes him seem absolutely trustworthy. My first warning of his true nature was his use of the term "the Dark Lord" to describe Voldemort, only moments before his identity was revealed. Edmund Pevensie should have gone to Hogwarts - he would have done better there than the earnest and uncritical Peter.

At heart, the Harry Potter series is about a struggle between good and evil that is as stark, in its way, as the battle between Sauron and the Fellowship of the Ring (from which, of course, Rowling borrows almost as much as she does from Lewis's Narnia books). But somehow that framework allows for James Potter to be a bit of a bully in his Hogwarts days, for Ron to be an ill-tempered brat, for Dumbledore himself to have a Hamartia, a fatal longing for the power of the Deathly Hallows.

Moreover, the series itself is elaborately disguised. Right-wing Christian groups have swallowed the bait hook, line, and sinker, banning the book, warning conscientious parents that it will lead their children to worship Satan, and doing their level best to keep the most powerful Christian allegory since The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe out of the hands of innocent children.

Not that it's an allegory, exactly. Harry is not Jesus, or even Aslan; Dumbledore is not God or even, in the end, godlike (though he is uncannily prescient). But in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling pulls the gloves off. For the first time, the existence of the Christian faith is obliquely acknowledged as Harry and Hermione pay a Christmas Eve visit the graveyard where his parents are buried. While worshippers congregate inside the church, Harry reads his parents' epitaph: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." The words are taken from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians, and Harry is so thoroughly post-Christian that he mistakes it for a species of Dark magic. (Rowling must have giggled as she wrote that, thinking of all the well-meaning pastors holding exorcisms to rid their congregations of her own dark influence.)

The central dilemma Harry faces in this book revolves around his faith in Dumbledore. Unlike Snape or Mad-Eye Moody, Dumbledore is never presented ambiguously: we always know that he is on the side of good, rooted in his opposition to Voldemort. But what Harry doubts is Dumbledore's love, his trustworthiness, his wisdom. Should he continue in the path Dumbledore marked out for him? Did Dumbledore really care about him, or did he merely view him as an instrument, a strategy? Repeatedly, people like Hermione advise Harry to choose to believe the best of Dumbledore, but belief doesn't strike Harry as a choice - he wants the truth, not some kind of pious self-delusion.

Nevertheless, at a key turning point of the novel, Harry makes a decision to trust Dumbledore: to forge ahead, not knowing or understanding why Dumbledore chose to reveal so little of the whole picture:

Harry kept quiet. He did not want to express the doubts and uncertainties about Dumbledore that had riddled him for months now. He had made his choice while he dug Dobby's grave; he had decided to continue along the winding, dangerous path indicated for him by Albus Dumbledore, to accept that he had not been told everything that he wanted to know, but simply to trust. He had no desire to doubt again, he did not want to hear anything that would deflect him from his purpose.

It's not quite a theodicy, but almost. I like the way Rowling foregrounds the issue of Dumbledore's reliability (something that Lois Lowry fails to do in The Giver, another novel in which a trusted mentor leads a boy to sacrifice himself for the greater good). There is ultimately no proof of Dumbledore's love, no evidence that clears him of all Harry's suspicions. Harry's decision to trust him is a calculated gamble, the kind of decision Voldemort is never brave enough to make.

Rowling has made her case for faith well before we get to the death and resurrection of Harry in the final chapters. Yes, she stole that plot device from C.S. Lewis (who stole it from the New Testament), but I think she dramatizes it more successfully. The "Deeper Magic From Before the Dawn of Time" has always seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me when Aslan uses it to weasel out of his deal with the Witch. Here Rowling makes it clear that Voldemort could have known - and should have known - what his murder of Harry would accomplish. He deluded himself, just as, in the end, he killed himself with his own rebounding curse.

Harry's Christian defenders have long pointed out that Lily Potter's sacrificial death, with the protection it provides, lays the groundwork in these novels for a Christian world view. But for a mother to die on behalf of her son is not so extraordinary as the spell Harry casts when he goes willingly to die, not for Ginny, or Ron, or Hermione, but for every person at the castle who is fighting bravely (and sacrificially) against the Death Eaters. Lewis's story focuses on the unworthiness of Edmund: Aslan sacrifices himself for a wretched traitor, someone most readers don't necessarily even like very much. At the end of Harry's story, the focus falls not on the sinfulness of humanity, but rather on the heart-stopping purity required to die a death that embraces and protects everyone.

Like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, Harry learns that moral rhetoric can be dangerous. Throughout The Deathly Hallows, Rowling plays with the phrase "For the Greater Good" - a mantra developed by Dumbledore and Grindelwald to justify a wizard uprising against the Muggles. Evil can be made to sound good - but goodness is real and important for all that. All the heavy-handed references to Nazi Germany function as a reminder that sometimes good and evil really do square off, sometimes it really is as simple as that. Sometimes, Harry points out at last, you really do have to do what is necessary for the greater good.

I didn't pay a lot of attention to the sermon this morning in church, my mind still at Hogwarts after a brief few hours of sleep. It made me grin to imagine the shocked expressions on some of my fellow churchgoers' faces if they knew what I was thinking. But the subject-matter was appropriate: it's hard to write about goodness (as Milton discovered) in a way that makes it more attractive than evil, and I've read few stories in which love and faith are represented so compellingly that I would stay up until three o'clock in the morning, cheering for The Boy Who Lived.

GTHBA

 
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Friday, July 20, 2007

Weekend Book-Meme

Veronica Mitchell tagged me for this one:

1. If you could host a party with 7 literary characters, who would they be and why?

Talkers: Rhett Butler, Elizabeth Darcy, Albus Dumbledore.
Sympathetic Listeners: Valancy Snaith, Kenneth Latham, Desdemona.
Eye Candy: Fitzwilliam Darcy.

2. Who is your literary role model?

Clarissa Harlowe. (She tries so hard to be a role model, it seems mean not to pick her.)


3. Which literary house would you like most to live in?

Misselthwaite Manor.

4. Which literary couple would you like most for parents?

I'll tell you who I'm not picking - Charles and Caroline Ingalls. Eliminating from contention any parents whose lifestyle choices will prevent me from reaching my full height due to malnutrition, I guess I'll pick Tish Sterling's parents from The Keeping Days series - a father who chooses bookish names like Letitia and Bronwyn for his daughters, and a mother who can make a Stretchable Stew that will feed the whole neighbourhood.

5. Pick 3 literary characters you would like to have as siblings.

Older brother: Jem Blythe. Younger sisters: Not Elizabeth Bennet - too witty and charming (who could compete with that?). Jane Bennet would be ideal - supportive, companionable, content to play second fiddle. And I'd throw in Lucy Pevensie for a bit of adventure.

6. Who is your favorite literary villain?

Dracula.

7. Name a character that most people dislike, but that you do not. Why do you like them?

Severus Snape. He relies on intelligence rather than charm. He's a scientist, a man of rigid self-control. He is tortured, complex, mysterious. He is played by Alan Rickman. That he is instrumental to the defeat of Voldemort will, I believe, be revealed in JUST A FEW SHORT HOURS!


8. Which minor character deserves a book all to themselves, in your opinion?

Jane Fairfax. (Joan Aiken wrote one, actually, but it was all wrong - instead of being complex and inward-looking, Jane was merely sour and judgmental.)

9. Which character do you identify most with in literature?

At one time it was either Harriet M. Welsch or Emily Byrd Starr - intense, introverted artists with a few rough edges. I think I've mellowed in my old age - I'm more Anne than Emily now.

10. If you could go into a novel, which one would it be and why?

The best reason to go into a novel would be to tell a character something that would change the outcome. Should I try to talk Scarlett O'Hara out of her senseless attachment to Ashley Wilkes? Should I warn Matthew Cuthbert - very gently and carefully - that he needs to move his savings to a different bank? Should I tell Beth March to just leave that Hummel family alone for once?

On the whole, I think I'd go into Villette and make it my mission to prevent M. Paul from getting on that boat so that he could live happily ever after with Lucy Snowe in a nice little Belgian school.

11. Name 3 - 7 books that you rarely see on people’s favorite book lists, that are high on your own.

Norma Johnston, The Keeping Days series
Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
D.E. Stevenson, Celia's House, Listening Valley, Miss Buncle's Book, Mrs. Tim Carries On, Sarah Morris Remembers, and many others.


12. Which is your least favorite book of those that are considered “classics”?

Back when I was too stubborn to stop reading a book once I'd started it, I made the mistake of starting Henry James' Portrait of a Lady - a mistake I'm not likely to repeat.

Luisa Perkins, Terri B., Trudy J. - you guys are it!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Piggy Died

Grandfa Grig
Had a pig
In a field of clover.
Piggy died
Grandfa cried
Then all the fun was over.

I feel like Grandfa tonight, only in my case it's Bubandpie had a laptop / On her kitchen table / Laptop died / Bubandpie cried / Because she was not able (to keep blogging).

And while I'm crying, I might as well whine about how tired I am of dragging this big ole sack o' sad with me wherever I go. I was so happy last month, teaching Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables to polite, punctual, interested students (one of my best classes ever). I was rested, energetic, engaged in my work, and I knew that saying goodbye to that class also meant, in all likelihood, saying goodbye to happiness for a month or two.

It's just such hard work being happy when the structure of one's days suddenly collapses along with one's laptop and the home-care provider emails just hours after meeting to say that she's afraid it won't work out and one feels surrounded by cotton-wool, suffocated and kind of dizzy sometimes with the weight of all the appointments, phone calls, orange juice, "change oil" light, potty, Little Gym, speech therapist, OT, JK, grilled-cheese Happy Meal with apple slices and chocolate milk, fall syllabus (possibly fried in crashed computer), optometrist, high cholesterol, HDL/LDL ratio, and Jolen Creme Bleach (to be picked up at the drugstore and then applied on Saturday morning, since when else will I have ten minutes to lie back undisturbed while my luxuriant upper lip fades to a golden brown?).

No wonder I need these:

 
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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

When in Doubt, Try Some Non-Posts

Demoralized
My big plan for today was to take the children to the park, followed by lunch at McEvil’s. A few early-morning rainshowers put the kaybosh on that plan, and somehow all my resolve has collapsed. The TV has been on all morning, the Pie has reclaimed her soother (which has been on naptime-only status for several months now), I’ve become sadly lax at sitting them on the potty, and both children have guzzled at least two sippy-cups of undiluted juice. Pie was dressed, at one time, but apparently she prefers to go topless. She is imitating her brother, who agreed to put on his "short pants" but balked at his t-shirt: whenever I’ve approached him, t-shirt in hand, he has grabbed it and thrown it down the basement stairs, declaring, "You’ll never find it now!"

Discovered
If you put two grilled-cheese sandwiches in a pan that’s too small for both of them to lie flat, and then heat them over the small burner (for reasons that are now unclear), they will come out burned at the top and raw on the bottom, and they will look funny, and your children will not eat them. And if you’ve used up the last of the bread in this ill-conceived endeavour, that will pretty much sap your inspiration for lunch.

I Scream, You Scream
I’ve managed to break my addiction to nightly DQ-runs, ever since I remembered that you can buy sugar-cones at the grocery store. (You’ll just have to imagine the sense of shock I felt when I came to that realization – I had completely forgotten about commercially-sold cones for home use.) Right now, I’ve got Baskin-Robbins pralines & cream, pistachio, and peanut butter flavour in the freezer, along with a tub of Breyer’s Skor-bar and a chocolate-brownie. (That’s five kinds of ice cream, just to be clear. The pistachio and peanut butter are two separate flavours, as are the Skor and chocolate-brownie.)

The optimal approach to ice cream-eating is to have the same flavour for no more than three consecutive nights. Though Skor-bar is my favourite, it tastes better if I refresh my palate by opting for peanut butter or chocolate brownie every once in awhile.

There is some kind of elaborate analogy to multiculturalism brewing in my mind in response to my recent ice-cream habits – something to do with understanding your own culture better as a result of looking at it through borrowed lenses – but I think I’ll just abandon that and leave the ice cream to speak for itself.


It’s Not About You
The lowest mark I received in grad school was 82% on a term paper for my eighteenth-century class. In real life, 82% is an excellent mark, but in English graduate studies, it’s just a couple of stops away from the dreaded 78% - the "nice try, but you really don’t belong in grad school" mark.

I was a bit disappointed in the grade, but I was devastated by the comments. I hadn’t understood the theoretical framework I was attempting to use. My reading of the novel was superficial. My paper was poorly organized and unclear. Based on those comments alone, I might have supposed that I had failed the paper – it apparently had no redeeming qualities, and there was some suggestion that the mark was as high as it was only because I had (fraudulently) created a positive impression through my participation in class discussions.

After I mopped myself up (and battled through a worst-ever fight with then-husband, the topic of which was the hypothesis that I am neurotically career-driven and excessively dedicated to academics), I figured out what had happened: the professor’s comments were a defensive reaction: she knew I would be disappointed by the grade and was defending herself in advance against my (hypothetical) accusations of injustice.

It was a salutary lesson. In my comments on student papers, I’ve always tried to remember that the purpose of my response is not to shield myself from the student’s wrath but rather to communicate something to the student about what he/she did well and how to improve.

This is a lesson I wish a few other people would learn:

  • To the medical resident who yelled at me for flinching while she was stitching up my nether parts after an episiotomy and forceps delivery: I realize that my gasps of pain may feel like a criticism of your skill, but guess what? It’s not about you!
  • To the co-worker who emailed a friend of mine to complain about her lack-lustre response to said co-worker’s engagement (even though said friend had only days before emerged from a long-term relationship after she discovered that her boyfriend was leading a double-life): I’m all for rejoicing with those who rejoice, but guess what? That shiny rock on your finger does not mean that the world revolves solely around you!

To make this a proper list/post, I need a few more examples, but I’m stumped. So how about you? Can you think of anyone who needs to learn that "It’s not about you!"?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Quality Day-Care

(Honestly, I feel like I’m on a campaign to drive people away from my blog. First there was the Harry Potter logic problem, which was basically unreadable, and now this is the third post this week that comes with a disclaimer about why you probably don’t want to read it. Anyway. Here’s another post with me stressing about day-care. Regular blogging will resume someday.)

I toured two day-care centers last week, both kids in tow. They splashed at the water tables while I admired the language- and emotional-intelligence-building curriculum; they gazed longingly at the paints while I asked about sickness policies and pick-up times.

Both centers are exactly what is meant by the term "quality day-care." They are what the Liberal and NDP parties are trying to get themselves elected by promising for everyone. Newly built with spacious rooms and shiny new playground equipment, both are beautiful, cutting-edge facilities. The hallways are lined with cubby-holes marked not only with the children’s names in that large, perfect printing only teachers are capable of producing, but also with icons that the children can recognize: an outlined lion for Caden, a crocodile for Hailey. The innovations do not end there: the outdoor play areas are divided into age-appropriate sections with progressively larger slides and tricycles; instead of sand or wood chips, they are paved with a kind of cushiony tarmac, with corners set aside for deep sandboxes and shady play-houses.

Pie and Bub loved every minute of the tour. By a kind of magnetic force, the Pie is always drawn to where the bigger girls are playing – when it was time to go, it was all I could do extricate her from a little knot of four-year-olds engaged in an elaborate game of house. Bub, for his part, was all fierce, concentrated energy, climbing ladders and drawing with chalk as if his life depended on it.

And yet. I am, as I have admitted already, not sold on either of these up-to-date, certified, high-quality day-care centers. While I was there I was dazzled, but as I drove home I felt a weight of sadness pressing down on my shoulders.

When I went back to work after my second maternity leave, I left my children at Sharon’s house. There, Bub and Pie could wander freely from the living room through the kitchen to the play room. There were kitties to look down on them from their perch next to the fishbowl; there were trees in the backyard where they got soaked on warm days. There was quietness there as well as activity; when I arrived to pick the children up they might be marching around the living room with their "dancing sticks" (foam connector-pieces from a long-ago disassembled puzzle), or they might be quietly stuffing themselves full of leftovers from last night’s supper: squares of ham and microwaved carrots.

Sharon does not have a curriculum; she does not have a diploma in Early Childhood Education. It is quite possible that she does not know CPR. But everything about her – and the environment she has provided for my children – is real. When she came over for a playdate last week, the Pie gave her the cold shoulder (as only she can do) and Sharon was literally reduced to tears. She loves my children, and now that they’re no longer in her care they miss her – as indeed they miss Livvy and Michael, the two-year-olds with whom they have always had to share her.

I am a passionate advocate for available, affordable, high-quality day-care. But what I have always loved about home-care is that a home is a place where one can productively do nothing. I am reminded of the value of such time-wastage now that school’s out and Day Camp season has officially begun. There are camps running at the local archaeological museum and the Little Gym, and there are Vacation Bible Schools at all the churches (including mine, which starts next week with an Avalanche Ranch theme). Every time I see an ad for Zone Camps or VBS, I am reminded of the various day-camps I signed up for as a child. There were things about them that I liked – the snacks, for instance, and the macrame owls we wove from brown and orange yarn – but it was always such a relief for me to come home at the end of the day to the empty hours in which I could putter about in my room, reading Nancy Drew and writing stories.

"We’re going to Sharon and Michael’s!" Bub exclaimed joyfully when I told him to put on his sandals last Thursday morning so we could leave for our day-care tour.

"No," I replied, "but we’re going to find some toys and kids."

He accepted that readily enough. But toys and kids feel like a poor substitute for what we’re leaving behind.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Present for the Story People



"Free stuff for Bub, free stuff for Pie, no free stuff for you," I told hubby the day the folks from Brighter Child emailed me with offers of free stuff. I skipped over the book section of the catalogue (we have lots of books, and besides – they’re free already, at the library) and went straight for the CD-ROMs: Caillou Ready for School! and Boohbah Dance Party. (It’s not really called Dance Party. I checked. It’s called The Boohbah Zone.)

I swear, I was not trying to turn Bub into a Brighter Child when I chose the educational-themed option for him: I picked it because Bub loves letters and numbers. He and I have already spent many a cozy hour snuggled up in front of my laptop, clicking our way through the Starfall alphabet. Unlike Starfall, the Caillou game costs money. Thus, I reasoned, it must be even better.

That’s where I was wrong. The Caillou CD-ROMs are lumpish and unimaginative. There are a few decent games on the "Thinking Skills" disc (though apparently the designers believe that the opposite of "girl" is "woman"), but most of the games consist of the following: "Click on all the capital and lower-case A’s to guide Caillou through the maze! Great job! You’re really good at this!" There are no sound effects designed to encourage phonemic awareness: it’s all just canned praise and letter/number recognition.

So it was with no high expectations that I opened up the Boohbah Dance Party. I was in no way prepared, certainly, for the explosions of fun about to erupt all over my household. The first thing I pulled out of the box was a cushioned dance mat on which one can execute one’s moves alongside Zing-Zing-Zingbah and friends; next, there was a deck of cards, each of which shouts "Wiggle!" or "Leap!" (To be clear. They don’t literally shout. But the words are printed in a thick black font with exclamation points.) All five Boohbahs appear on the cards, as well as Little Dog Fido, Grandmamma, and all the other story-time characters. Much wiggling and leaping for joy ensued.

Eventually, I got around to putting in the CD-ROM. I’ve always found the Boohbah world to be oddly charming (once I got past my initial horror at their strange bumpy heads): the show is full of bubbles and giggles and plummy English accents. It’s been a year at least since the last time Bub watched Boohbah on TV, but he was mesmerized instantly by the game. Mostly, it’s just a lot of tootling around. Click on a bubble and make sparkly things go all over the New York skyline! Click on another bubble and watch while New York suddenly turns into Russia! There are also a few goal-oriented games: Bub and I enjoyed the Make-a-Match concentration game for instance, and while I was a bit disappointed in the modest wiggles and spins the Boohbahs perform in the dancing portion of the game, Bub clearly was not.

Without the narrow educational agenda of Caillou Ready for School!, The Boohbah Zone actually offers a far richer environment for language development and social interaction. The cards all focus on verbs, and while they’re meant to be used as a variation on "Go Fish!" they lend themselves easily to active, made-up games involving turn-taking, social cues, surprises, and silliness. The games on the CD-ROM permit lots of creativity as well – you can design your own wrapping paper, tell a story, or create a bubble-and-light show. It’s not something Bub is able to use by himself yet (much less the Pie), and there’s not a whole lot to occupy my mind while I’m helping him learn the difference between Humbah and Jumbah. But like the makers of the TV show, the game developers clearly understand a child’s mind and what it likes: bubbles, bright colours, silly sounds, and creatures that make me rethink my position on the issue of circumcision.

Caillou: Ready for School! – D
The Boohbah Zone – A-


The Boohbah tea party. Served daily 7 am to 7 pm.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Brother-Baiting

"Stop that," she said, wickedly.

"Don’t stop that!" Bub shouted back in agony.

"Stop that," Pie repeated, illustrating each command with a single small hand raised up in the international symbol for "stop that."

Her hand did not transgress the barrier of the carseat armrest – it was a purely visual affront.

"No stopping!" Bub wailed. And then, "Go that! Go that!"

"You have to admire his command of opposites," I said to hubby after we stopped shaking with suppressed laughter. "Opposites used purely for oppositional purposes."

"Stop that," Pie said again. She did not quite manage to keep the giggle out of her voice.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Dilemmas: A Short-List

(Or, The Stuff That Is Making My Brain Explode Today)

This is me thinking out loud. Please feel free to give advice or ignore me, as you feel so inclined.

1. Should I send Bub to JK this September as planned?

Pro:

  • My next-door neighbour works at the school and recommended a good teacher for me to request. This teacher had an autistic boy in her class last year, and since the classes are a mix of JK and SK students, this boy will be in her class again this coming year, along with his EA, which means there will be two adults in the room who are knowledgeable about autism and accustomed to accommodating for it.
  • Convenience. I’ve arranged my teaching schedule so that I can do the drop-offs and pick-ups myself, but that’s possible only because it’s less than a five-minute drive to the university from the school.
  • It’s free. And we’ve got three years’ worth of law-school debts to pay.

Con:
  • I’ve read the article about how advantageous it is to be among the oldest students in the class. As a November baby, Bub will be among the youngest, but if I hold him back a year, he will be only slightly older than his classmates.
  • If I put him in another preschool program, he will get many of the benefits of JK (classroom experience, socialization), and I will buy myself a year in which to consider where to place him. If he’s doing well, he could transition into SK, and if he’s still having problems, we could move him into JK with an extra year of preparation under his belt.
  • Toilet training. ‘Nuff said.

2. Should I put Bub into a Montessori school?

Pro:

  • He would be happy there. Montessori education emphasizes independent learning, so Bub would not be melting down constantly in response to forced structure and transitions.
  • Bub’s academic skills are already strong and would likely continue to develop in that environment. (To wit: he can read at least sixty words by sight, as I discovered this afternoon, with some ability to sound out new words.)
  • As I was pondering these issues I came across this post, which is making me reconsider the value of learning to cope within a structured environment. Having successfully home-schooled her children, this is what Mary P has to say:

    When I was homeschooling, my two directing principles were:
    1. Children are natural learners who don’t need to be coaxed or manipulated into learning.
    2. My role is facilitator of this natural drive, not enforcer of information absorption.

    Thus, my days with my kids involved me following their natural curiosity. I would suggest activities that would include aspects of learning they mightn’t get to on their own, or to enrich their inclinations, but it was always their curiosity and desire that led us - and they had lots! EVERY child does.

    If my principles had included children need to learn structure and adherence to routine in order to prepare them for the Real World, I’d probably have established set times for lessons and required submissions of completed worksheets at regular intervals. However, I don’t think this, so I didn’t do it that way.

    Do Bub’s particular quirks mean that it’s more important to teach him how to accept instruction? Or do they mean that he’s only three years old and he could use a year in a less stressful environment before making the leap into a more typical classroom?

Con:
  • The emphasis on independence could mean that there would be little to challenge him to come out of his shell and interact with the other children. One of his speech therapists visibly shuddered when I mentioned Montessori as an option: she agreed that Bub would love it – but it would likely not foster his social development.
  • It’s probably too late to register for any preschools – and the local Montessori school requires applicants to pay a non-refundable $100 deposit simply to be considered for the waiting list.

3. My home-care provider is having a baby this fall, which means I’m on the hunt for alternative care. Should I place the children in another home-care situation, or in a day-care centre?

Pro (Day-Care):

  • The curriculum at the centers I’ve visited emphasizes emotional intelligence and episodic memory. They even use a chart with icons to represent the daily schedule (something that is very useful for boys like Bub to help them adjust to the structure of the program).
  • Convenience. The on-campus day-care center is, well, on campus. And they’re open until six, which will be useful since I have a class on Mondays that runs until 5:30.
  • If I decide not to place Bub in JK, and it’s too late to register for a preschool, day-care would offer many of the same social benefits without a transition halfway through the day from one place to the next.

Con (Day-Care):
  • I can’t even imagine how stressful it would be for Bub to be in a large day-care center full-time, constantly surrounded by other children. The home-care environment he’s been in until now is small, intimate, home-like – it’s restful. Day-care centers are stimulating and fun, but they seem to me to be the very reverse of restful.
  • Although I’m getting near the top of the waiting list, there’s no guarantee that I will get a spot.

Pro (Home-Care):
  • I managed to stumble upon an ad posted by a woman who lives less than five minutes from me and is opening a home-care this September. She seems very knowledgeable and professional, and she just happens to have two openings for exactly the days I would need. If we like the look of each other, we could have a contract signed by the end of this week.
  • Instead of being separated all day, Pie and Bub would be eating lunch together, playing together in the afternoons after her nap. They would be in a home environment where there is a single caregiver for Pie to bond with, and a restful environment in which Bub can recover from the stresses of the morning.

Con (Home-Care):
  • The fees are just as steep as day-care, and the pick-up time is 4:30 (I will have to find out whether the caregiver would be willing to extend that once a week to accommodate my afternoon class).
  • The plan is for my previous caregiver to start taking children back into care a couple of months after her baby is born. It’s quite possible that she will feel differently about that plan when the time comes, and indeed both of us might want to wait until her baby is a bit older before resuming our arrangements … but I already feel guilty about leaving my new home-care provider in the lurch after only a few months.

Remember the days when we thought life would get easier once the kids started school?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Uneven Parallels


"Look at that," I commented to the tall, pretty mom standing next to me. "Eight children sitting quietly like they’re supposed to, two crying at the door, and one boy off in a corner doing his own thing. That would be my son." As I spoke, Bub swung back and forth on the uneven parallel bars, a huge grin on his face. A moment later he was joined by a second boy whose momentary circle-time acquiescence could not withstand the temptation posed by my own son’s nonconformity.

"That would be my son," the pretty mom replied, nodding towards the corner where the two of them were aiding and abetting one another's rebellion against the social codes of the Little Gym.

We circled each other warily, dropping hints one at a time: first we mentioned speech delays and occupational therapy; a moment later I caught her biting her tongue after the word "special," not wanting to offend me by finishing the phrase with "needs." Finally I dropped the a-bomb: "We’re on the waiting list for autism assessment." Her face came alive with recognition and the sudden relaxation of wariness. Hers too: he’ll be screened in December.

As we chatted in the lobby, Bub clambered over the risers, doing a perfect roll down a padded slope. As the bubbly gymnastics instructor approached him with a gentle reprimand, I called the next play: "Here’s the part where he melts down." Sure enough, a moment later he was standing on the riser, his mouth open in a wail of despair, tears coursing down his cheeks. That wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was watching him pull himself together, only to be thrown into another paroxysm of grief by the next injustice. No sooner had he begun to play cautiously with the hula hoops than it was time to put them away; no sooner had he learned how to straddle the parallel bars than it was time to line up and move on to the balance beam. Each transition provoked a meltdown. I coped by alternating strategies, first sneaking in to offer hugs of reassurance, then hiding in the lobby out of Bub’s line of sight, hoping he’d settle without me.

"Why don’t you just go in and sit on the sidelines," the other mom suggested.

Rule-follower that I am, I hesitated – this advice went expressly against the politely-worded request the instructor had issued at the beginning of the class. Seeing my hesitation, she urged, "You’re the mom. You don’t want this to be what he remembers for next week."

It was good advice. With me there on the sidelines, Bub could relax enough to run around, butting in line and doing whatever came into his head, returning periodically for a quick hug. He is not a clingy child; this need for reassurance testifies to the intensity of his anxiety.

I’ve been so encouraged lately by Bub’s progress. He has solved the conundrum of pronouns. He has tentatively begun asking "why." He has even played hide-and-seek at the park with another boy and cryptically alluded to it later, experimenting with the language of episodic memory. All his symptoms are language-related, I’ve concluded, and his speech is improving by leaps and bounds.

Except that this morning’s debacle had little or nothing to do with language – this was the social and behavioural dimension of whatever disorder Bub is struggling with. I had expected problems in this new and structured environment, but I was not prepared for the starkness of the contrast between my son and all the other children, those robotic three-year-olds with their Borg-like shared consciousness.

My new friend was full of tips: OT, the university "lab" preschool, delaying junior-kindergarten. By the time the gymnastics class came to an end we had exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, planned a playdate for next week. Up until now I’ve resisted OT, unconvinced that Bub’s problems were related to sensory processing, but since this morning I’ve placed a few phone calls, wrung my hands, brushed a few surreptitious tears into the re-heated macaroni and cheese I was serving up for lunch. I have a new friend – this was one of those rare days when I met someone new and recognized her instantly as the friend she may become. More importantly, Bub has made a friend – as we were leaving the gym her son gave him a hug, rubbing his shoulder affectionately until Bub said, "I’m okay" with the sweet downward-inflection he adopts when he makes reference to sadness or pain.

It’s been a good day – an extraordinary day, even. So why am I still crying?

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Grammar Instruction Outlawed at Local University

In a statement to local media, Director Fancypants of the School of Writing and Rhetoric confirmed reports that grammar instruction is to be terminated in undergraduate writing courses.

"Learning the rules of grammar does not make you a better writer," he said at this morning’s press conference. Pulling out a hefty tome, he pointed to a highlighted section citing empirical evidence to confirm his position. "Study after study shows that grammar instruction does not improve punctuation or effective communication."

Instead of learning to use commas and semi-colons, incoming students will receive instruction on document design and font selection. "Native speakers of the language can create complex sentences by the age of five," Fancypants explained. "We need to prepare them to write in the world of multimedia communications."

Some veteran writing instructors aren’t so sure. "Despite his speech delay, my three-year-old son is able to use prepositional phrases correctly," Professor Bubandpie noted, "but his grasp of punctuation is not at all well-developed."

Her former students agree. "Before taking Professor Bubandpie’s writing class," one of them claimed, "my writing was full of sentence fragments and comma splices. Now I can write sentences like this one: Although, the dog whom ate my homework was very fierce; he merely gobbled it up and ran away.

"It’s true that many students struggle with grammatical concepts," Bubandpie acknowledged, "and in the short term their writing often gets worse before it gets better. Nevertheless, I’ve always believed that in the university we do not abandon certain subjects simply because they are difficult."

In her writing classes this fall, Bubandpie hopes to continue teaching grammar in addition to the Advanced Cutting-and-Pasting that is mandated by the curriculum. She realizes that by doing so, she risks negative evaluations from students who resent the subject matter, calling it "boring," "old-fashioned" and "irrelevant."

"Student-led workshops and writing exercises are useful," Bubandpie concedes, "but without a basic grasp of punctuation and grammar, students cannot improve their writing simply by doing more of it."

In the post-grammar era, them’s fighting words.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Smart or Dumb?

Things That Make My Brain Shut Down

  • The lady who comes to our house to explain Registered Education Savings Plans. She goes over mutual funds vs. GICs, rates of return and government bursaries, and no matter how hard I try to concentrate, my eyes just glaze over until finally I tell my husband that he’s the head of the home and has to make the decisions.
  • Directions.
  • Any description that requires me to envision spatial relationships – the layout of a house I’ve never been to, let’s say, or the location of a switch on a gadget I don’t actually have in my hands.
  • Post-structuralist literary theory.
  • How-to-play instructions for games I’ve never played before.
  • Conversations about home repairs, mortgage rates, or the stock market. (By contrast, conversations about pregnancy symptoms, marital tensions, or apostrophe misuse receive my full and avid attention.)

Things that (Surprisingly) Do Not Make My Brain Implode
  • This post. Robin writes about genetic differences between identical twins with an enviably transparent style, and I feel smarter just for having read it.
  • Tricky math problems. I may or may not be able to solve them, but I can puzzle over them without cranial damage.
  • Subordinate clauses that act as the object of a preposition. (e.g. I will go to the prom with whoever asks me first.) I can also explain why I used "whoever" instead of "whomever" in that sentence, though I have never yet done so without seeing my students’ eyes glaze over with that same expression of non-comprehension that I attempt to conceal when the RESP lady visits.
  • The Potions Riddle at the end of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone:

    Danger lies before you, while safety lies behind,
    Two of us will help you, whichever you would find,
    One among us seven will let you move ahead,
    Another will transport the drinker back instead,
    Two among our number hold only nettle wine,
    Three of us are killers, waiting hidden in line.
    Choose, unless you wish to stay here forevermore,
    To help you in your choice, we give you these clues four:
    First, however slyly the poison tries to hide
    You will always find some on nettle wine's left side;
    Second, different are those who stand at either end,
    But if you would move onward, neither is your friend;
    Third, as you see clearly, all are different size,
    Neither dwarf nor giant holds death in their insides;
    Fourth, the second left and the second on the right
    Are twins once you taste them, though different at first sight.

Am I the only one who tried to solve this puzzle? My tack was to make a chart: there are seven bottles and four possibilities for the contents of each: poison (P), nettle wine (NW), a potion to move Harry forwards through the fire (F), and a potion to move him back safely (B).

Based on the first clue, I can cross nettle wine off Bottle 1 on the far left-hand side (since nettle wine always has poison on its left and there's nothing on the left of Bottle 1). Based on the second clue, I can cross (F) off the bottles on either end. That means Bottle 1 contains either poison OR (B).

Based on the fourth clue, I can cross (F) and (B) off Bottles 2 and 6 (since they are alike, and there’s only one of the forwards and backwards potions). That means those bottles must be either poison (P) or nettle wine (NW).

The third clue is basically useless because Rowling does not tell us the size of the bottles. But we do know that Hermione solved this puzzle, so she must have used the size of the bottles to determine the identity of one of the bottles we’ve narrowed down to two possibilities (that is, Bottles 1, 2, and 6).

If Bottle 1 is not poison (because it’s either a "dwarf" or a "giant") then it must be the one that moves Harry backwards (B). But at that point we get stuck again, with no further inferences to be made – so that can’t be how Hermione solved the puzzle.

If Bottle 2 OR 6 is smallest/largest, that means neither can be poison and both must be nettle wine (since, based on the fourth clue, we know they are alike). In that case, Bottles 1 and 5 must be poison (based on the first clue: poison is always on the left of nettle wine). Bottle 7 cannot be nettle wine (there are only two of those, in Bottles 2 and 6), it cannot be poison (because it’s not the same as Bottle 1, based on second clue), and it does not move forwards (second clue), so it must be the one that moves Harry back (B).

That leaves Bottles 3 and 4. The only remaining options are poison and forwards (F). Whichever of the two is not a dwarf/giant must be the one Harry drank to proceed through the fire unharmed.

My final solution:
Bottle 1: Poison
Bottle 2: Nettle Wine
Bottle 3: either Poison or Forwards (depending on size)
Bottle 4: either Poison or Forwards (depending on size)
Bottle 5: Poison
Bottle 6: Nettle Wine
Bottle 7: Back

Wasn’t that fun? Do you still wish you could take one of my classes? Because I’ll be honest here – I actually walked one of my Children’s Literature classes through this riddle, extolling the virtues of novels that incorporate the Child as Player, until the combination of boredom and confusion in their eyes forced me to abandon the exercise.

Ten days left...

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Crying


There was a crying baby at the park this morning.

It was a newborn, so enveloped in the Baby Bjorn that no traces of pink or blue could be seen to give me a broader range of pronouns to work with. The mother tramped up and down the playground, following her gleeful two-year-old from swings to slide to sandbox. She bounced a little as she walked, jiggling the baby carrier, but the baby’s cries rang out unabated, loud and lusty with that little note of determination, like someone who has buckled up for an eight-hour car-ride with a few high-protein granola bars and a stack of mixed CDs. That crying was settled in for the duration.

Maybe that mother is starving her baby, I told myself, experimentally. Maybe that is a terrible mother who doesn’t know how to meet her baby’s needs.

But I knew she wasn’t. It was clear – abundantly, robustly clear – that the crying was not the mother’s fault. It wasn’t a crisis, or even a problem that needed to be fixed, a condition that could be cleared up with infant massage or Gripe Water or a dab of just the right topical anti-crying cream. The crying just was. The mother didn’t need to stop it, or fix it, or whip out a patented "solution" to it. She just needed to hold her baby and be there.

But what amazed me was that the mother seemed to know this: she appeared neither embarrassed nor panicked, just strangely peaceful as if holding this shrieking, wailing infant was the sweetest privilege in the world.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Never Gonna Fall For (Post)Modern Love

One of my favourite Harlequin formulas is the Deep Dark Secret plot. Sometimes the secret is a concealed identity (think You’ve Got Mail); other times, it is the Lurid Past, the Childhood Trauma, or the Double Mastectomy. Deep Dark Secret romances are always full of back story; the author doesn’t need to embroil the hero and heroine in elaborate and improbable misunderstandings in order to keep them apart – instead, the secret keeps them busy lying, concealing, and covering up. In the shorter genres (Harlequin Temptation or Harlequin Presents), the secret is generally discovered by one’s Worst Enemy and then revealed to one’s Object of Affection, resulting in a good, passionate blow-out followed by an even more passionate reconciliation. In the longer genres (Harlequin Historical or Harlequin Superromance), the secret may be complex enough that even the most understanding Object of Affection cannot resolve it with a few well-chosen words of support. In these longer novels, the secret will be confessed somewhere around page 200, and the rest of the novel will deal with the fall-out.

There are certain useful moral principles to be gained from these novels (as well as from their kissing cousins, the soap operas). Do not conceal important information from the man you love: he will always understand and support you once the truth is revealed, but if you ’fess up yourself, you can eliminate a lot of unnecessary shouting, name-calling, and melodramatic accusations of betrayal.

I’m not a big fan of Modern (or Postmodern) Literary Novels. As I see it, they are just as formulaic as a Harlequin or a whodunit – but since all the good formulas have been used up, they fall back on the crappy formulas. Like the "Here’s a Likable Character – Now Watch While I Torture Her" formula. Or the "Nothing Happens in a Bleak Prairie Town" formula. At best, these novels – like the romance or the whodunit – are about creating an emotional response, but instead of surprise or satisfaction, they aim for emotional pain. At worst, these novels are about little more than their own noble resistance to the constraints of the other genres.

Despite my usual policy of avoiding critically acclaimed fiction, I just finished reading Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach (thanks, Metro Mama, for the free copy!). McEwan has his own formulas, and one of the ones he relies on here is the skilful creation of desire in the reader. He is very good at making me want things. When I read his books, I passionately desire his characters to come together, to achieve fulfillment. In an old-fashioned novel, this readerly desire is stoked by a tantalizing series of postponements, and the delay of the ending, as much as its promised and expected arrival, is fundamental to the novel’s pleasure. McEwan, on the other hand, is not an old-fashioned writer. I know, right from the beginning, that he’s not going to give me what I want, that his novels are about wanting and not getting, desire and not fulfillment.

Even the title tells me something about what the novel isn’t going to do. On Chesil Beach functions for me as an echo of (and commentary upon) Matthew Arnold’s "Dover Beach," a poem in which two lovers stand upon a bleak shore and contemplate the collapse of the cultural and religious certainties upon which they have been raised. "Ah, love," the speaker declares, "let us be true to one another! For the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night." Considering what a nihilistic poem it is, "Dover Beach" is awfully romantic.

Arnold’s poem was written in 1867, and McEwan’s novel is set almost a hundred years later, on the eve of another cultural shift: "This was still the era – it would end later in that famous decade – when to be young was a social encumbrance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure." Newly married, Florence and Edward must negotiate their wedding night befogged by their shared ignorance and by one Deep Dark Secret: Florence is intensely, covertly reluctant to have sex.

The story is so very nearly a Harlequin that McEwan must strive all the way through to prevent it from becoming one. (That he succeeds is, I think, the real problem with this novel.) Several times, Florence opens her mouth to talk to Edward about her feelings and we readers strain at the bit urging her to form the words that are hovering on the tip of her tongue. For the novel to work, we have to believe that these two are capable of finding a way through their difficulties – we have to want very much for them to do so – and we have to know (while simultaneously doubting our sure knowledge) that McEwan is not going to provide a happily-ever-after ending.

I would have been interested to see whether a writer as skilled as McEwan could have provided a successful resolution to the story without turning it into a romantic comedy. Is frustrated desire the only emotion a Literary Novel can respectably incite? It is as if the spectre of all those cheap paperbacks looms, chaperone-like, over our reading pleasures, refusing consummation, denying fulfillment. We have become ascetics in our literary tastes, puritanically scorning the flesh with its crudely optimistic desires.

This question is all the more insistent because in the end this novel becomes, not a postmodern exercise in uncertainty, but rather a kind of fable, a morality tale. It focuses minutely on a single evening in the lives of these characters and thus captures the life-changing quality of certain apparently small moments of decision. At one key juncture, Edward deliberately considers the prospect of his own anger: "How tempting to give in to it, now that he was alone and could let it burn." Anger seems like a harmless release, and yet that solitary psychological moment determines everything that will follow and affects the rest of his life.

On Chesil Beach is a gripping novel. It kept me up turning the pages until well after midnight, and then it kept me up for an hour longer, tossing and turning and wrestling with its meaning. It frustrated me, maddened me – but its characters are continuing to live in my mind long after I closed the book on its disappointing (and surprisingly unambiguous) ending.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Like/Don't Like (SAHM Edition)

I like the mornings, when I can drink my coffee and read the paper while the kids run around in their pyjamas. Hubby has been leaving for work half an hour earlier this week, since there’s no delivery to day-care to worry about, and even so the mornings are far more relaxing than they used to be.

I don’t like the 9:30 boredom that sets in, when the children take turns stealing each other’s toys, pushing and biting, while I belatedly try to get dressed and figure out where we’re going (the park? the bookstore? a playgroup? the back yard?).

I like how different things are now from what they were a year ago, the last time I was at home full-time. When I say, "Do you guys want to go to the library?" instead of blank stares there is a pounding of four little feet down the stairs and much shouting of "Good idea, Mama!" and "Where are my sandals?" They can put their sandals on with only minimal assistance; they can climb into their carseats with only the occasional boost; they can hold hands as we walk from the car to the grocery store. Where a year ago I had two miniature tornadoes to manage, now I have two verbal, interactive, independent agents to negotiate with.

I don’t like the reminders that some things haven’t changed a bit. Bub still fights every transition tooth and nail. He fixates on particular books and refuses to leave them behind. He has to be carried, screaming, to the car while the Pie takes advantage of the moment by running away and hiding.

I like seeing all the milestones Bub is passing with startling rapidity. Climbing up rock-walls at the park. Asking "why" questions. Peeing on the potty.

I don’t like the challenge of mopping my kitchen floors while the Pie "helps" by dipping her plastic broom in the soapy water and Bub follows us shouting, "Oh no, it’s wet!" and trying to dry the floor off with a hand-towel.

I like the mental space that has opened up in the sudden absence of lectures to prepare and essays to grade. When I make social plans for the weekend, I find myself stressing about how I’ll get any work done – and then I realize, oh yeah, there isn’t any work to get done.

I don’t like the aimlessness, the great swathes of time that only I can figure out how to fill.

I like having the space in which to realize how much I truly enjoy my job, how creative and independent and non-annoying it is.

I don’t like the thought of all I will miss when the children start day-care (and JK) in the fall.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Hey You

From reading blogs, I know how common it is for toddlers to assume that their mothers know the name of every random stranger in the neighbourhood. Pie is definitely of that persuasion. "Who’s that?" she asks as we drive home from day-care. My vague answers are apparently satisfactory to her – she has even begun adopting them in her own play. "Bye bye Man!" she called out the front door yesterday, as I was tidying up the supper dishes. I assumed that she was addressing a passer-by, but in fact she had picked up one of her Rescue Heroes and was trying to figure out how to get him out the front door. "He’s going to the doctor," she explained when I came to check.

Bub prefers a more independent approach. Instead of asking for names, he tries to improvise. "Hello Somebody!" he greeted a little boy at the beach the other day. And then this morning, while two workmen were installing our new central air system (pause here to feel my pain – our old unit died in the middle of the latest heat wave), Bub watched through the side screen door, jabbing a finger in the men’s direction from time to time and saying, "You! You!"

"If you want to be friendly, Bub," I admonished, "you should say hello."

He tried that. But then a few minutes later he came up with a better idea. "Hey, Dick! What are you doing?" he called out. "Dick! What are you doing?"

I think maybe it’s time to confiscate this book:


*****

June 07 ROFL award

That made me smile. But if you want to laugh until tears roll off your chin and onto your keyboard, read Mimi’s birth story. It starts here and ends here, but the funniest installment for me was this one – more than worthy of an ROFL award for the month of June. For more ROFLs, go here and here.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

High-School Meme



(Borrowed from Andrea. Because what’s the point of suffering if you can’t relive it later?)

1 Who was your best friend?
Always Laura. The "third friend" rotated, possibly because none of them were wholly comfortable with the fact that they would never advance to best friend status.

2 What sports did you play?
After I passed grade 9 general-level gym class, fulfilling the minimum requirement for graduation, I retired from the playing field, to the relief of everyone concerned.

3 What kind of car did you drive?
Oldsmobile Cutlass Sierra (my mom’s).

4 It’s Friday night, where were you?
Babysitting. Doing my homework, reading books, watching late-night movies, and writing in my diary, all for the princely sum of $2/hour.

5 Were you a party animal?
In grade 11 I did a kind of anthropological study of teenage partying activities. Perhaps the most embarrassing moment associated with that brief foray into the party scene was the scornful look I got from a popular girl sitting in front of me on the bus when I happily reported to my best friend that I had been recruited as a designated driver.

6 Were you considered a flirt?
Alas, no.

7 Were you in band, orchestra, or choir?
I really should have been. I figured out far too late that joining choir with all one’s friends meant a guaranteed allocation to third-period lunch (since rehearsals took place in the second half of the 75-minute period), thus eliminating the risk of being the only person in one’s social group with fourth-lunch, a fate that meant either nibbling on pretzels in the library or else sharing a table with the foreign exchange students.

8 Were you a nerd?
Kind of. I was not popular, but I also carefully avoided joining an identifiable group of fellow nerds. Someone with no friends is vulnerable and despised, but someone with a group of nerdy friends is much, much worse off.

9 Did you get suspended/expelled?
No.

10 Can you sing the fight song?
Introductory chant: "Deep in the heart of the London jungle you can hear the Sabres rumble – Ooh! Ah! Ooh! Ah! Ooh! Ah! Ooh! Ah!"
Followed by (to the tune of "It’s a Long Way to Tipperary"): "We’re the sabres, the might sabres! We’re the red white and gold. We’ve no fear here, we’ll never falter! We are daring, we are bold!" (Shall I go on? Because I totally could.)

11 Who was your favorite teacher?
The most memorable was my Grade 11 English teacher. We were required to keep a "work diary" recording our impressions of the classes and the assigned readings, and I used mine to launch an apologetic manifesto, a response to certain unguarded theological statements she made during the first week of class. To wit: she claimed that the "fruit" in the Garden of Eden story represented sex, and that the "Fall" was more of a natural process of growth and learning. Heresy!

12 School mascot?
Sabre-tooth tiger.

13 Did you go to Prom?
I went to my grad dance wearing a black Laura Ashley dress. It would actually be quite fashionable today, that dress, with its dark background picked out with fuchsia and white flowers. I was one of two people wearing it that night, a function of the fact that the prom-dress-to-person ratio in Canada is approximately one tenth of what it is in the U.S.

14 If you could go back and do it over, would you?
My BFF and I have often endorsed the theory that if we went back to high school and did it over again, knowing what we do today, the experience would be exactly the same. It doesn’t matter how confident or intelligent you are, how aware of the stupidity of high-school politics – the environment is stronger than the individual: it would chew me up and spit me out within a week.

15 What do you remember most about graduation?
The guy who came up to me after the awards ceremony to gush about how "All of us are going to be working for you someday!" I often reflect on how stunned he would be today at my total lack of status and earning power.

16 Where were you on senior skip day?
Huh?

17 Did you have a job your senior year?
I worked at the local farmer’s market, ringing in apples and bagging carrots. It was meant to be a job that would provide lots of summer hours so I could save for university, but when I refused to work on the May 24 weekend, my boss didn’t fire me, but simply kept me on at a minimal number of hours until I went away the following September. (It’s okay, though – it was a memorable weekend and worth the sacrifice.)

18 Where did you go most often for lunch?
The options were (1) cafeteria (embarrassment capital of the world, as Angela Chase would say), (2) mall, (3) my friend Felicia’s house (permissible only when she was in the mood for sharing her mom). Mostly I stuck to option #1, and suffered accordingly.

19 Have you gained weight since then?
Only about forty pounds or so.

20 What did you do after graduation?
I went to university.

21 When did you graduate?
1990.

22 Who was your Senior prom date?
I went with my newly acquired group of friends: 12 girls (evenly divided into 6 virgins and 6 non, and seated accordingly) and 1 guy, who danced with everyone in turn and had far more fun than any of the rest of us.

23 Are you going / did you go to your 10 year reunion?
The 20-year reunion is closer at hand, and I won’t be going if I can help it.

24 Who was your home room teacher?
In 1994, I decided to test my memory and see if I could reconstruct my entire high-school schedule including year, course, period, and teacher. I managed to get almost all of them. Apparently now my brain has replaced that information with competing theories of infant sleep-training and the exact ages at which my children met all their milestones.

25 Who will repost this after you?
How about Jenn and Slouching Mom. Are you guys up for it?