Friday, August 31, 2007

Apropos of Nothing

Like: The new sign I installed at the bottom of my blog. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who ever sees it, but whenever I scroll down to see if any new comments have cropped up on my recent posts, there it is, different every time.

BubandPie

Made by Andrea Micheloni

Don’t Like: Organic dark chocolate with ginger pieces. It sounds like it ought to be delicious, in the sense that it’s so strange and counter-intuitive that it would only exist if it were really good. But in fact it just tastes weird.


(Do not suppose, however, that I plan to dispose of said chocolate. Oh, no – I’ll still eat it. I’ll just be really disappointed whenever I do.)

Like: Coming up with new labels for my posts. “Seasons” is my newest one, and a quick glance through my archive suggests that there is, in fact, a season for writing about seasons, one that lasts from July to December. Lots of summer beach posts, lots of lyrical meditations on autumn, a few snow day snapshots, but nothing between January and June. Bleak midwinter is the time for thinky blogging, with frivolous weather posts banished until the first beach day of summer.

Don’t Like: Spring. It’s the most overrated season, composed mostly of mud, rain, and late snowstorms that are completely without the novelty and excitement of those first few blizzards in early December. By the time spring has grown out of its awkward all-arms-and-legs phase, it’s nearly July and time to break out the shorts and tank-tops.

Like: This idea I found at Owlhaven: Personalize the following quote:

“One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.”

Here’s my attempt:

One ought, every day at least, to sit in silence for half an hour, read the newspaper, eat (or drink) something while it is still hot, and if it were possible, to sleep for eight hours uninterruptedly.

It’s as if I have a newborn, isn’t it? I guess when I think about the minimum I ask of the day in order to feel healthy and centered, my mind just naturally wanders to the months when none of those things occurred, ever.

(Here are some of the things that crossed my mind while I was making my list, but did not make the cut: fresh air, sunsets, TV, shopping, exercise, hearing the heartwarming sound of children’s laughter.)

Don’t Like: Card games in which one is required to place bids or call trump. Losing is bad enough without deepening the humiliation by engaging in wanton acts of hubris at the beginning of each hand.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

So Long, SAHM

Just two days left in my term (sentence?) as a stay-at-home mom. I feel like it’s coming to an end just as we’re starting to get good at it. After nine weeks, we have finally learned how to settle into the formlessness of summer – all of us are used, by now, to the rough routine of morning trips to the toy store or park, our weeks anchored by Friday mornings at the Little Gym and Wednesday excursions to the drive-through at Old McDonald’s (home of Happy Meals and other domesticated lunches).

I made grilled cheese sandwiches today for lunch and (contrary to the half-cooked sandwich fiasco from the beginning of the summer) everything ran on well-oiled hinges. I flipped them onto plates that were standing at-the-ready just as they crisped to a nice dark brown, and then all of us tucked in ravenously, pausing only to sample the side dishes of grapes, oranges, and fresh field tomatoes. Pie had chosen to sit in Daddy’s chair instead of her own, so she and Bub sat side by side, interrupting their meal occasionally to tickle each other’s legs with their toes and converse in giggle-speak.

They have learned the art of joint pretend-play, these two. Sometime in the last month they began to divvy up roles. “I’m Hondo!” Bub will announce, referring to the canine protagonist of a recent library book. “I’m Fabian!” Pie responds, cat to his dog, and then they devote several minutes to petting each other’s shoulders with long, affectionate strokes, head to tail.

There is still pushing, swiping, and even incipient tattle-taling. But the atmosphere around here has changed since the beginning of the summer, relaxed into something comfortable and secure.

I have a lot of energy this week. Blog posts are rattling around my brain, the house is clean, and my online course is all set up for the first students to log in next Thursday. I suspect that much of my happiness in SAHMdom this week arises from the fact that work beckons flirtatiously, just around the corner. Bub fell asleep last night clutching the name tag I picked up for him at the nursery-school parent meeting. He has a new backpack and seems to grasp that he’s going to be taking it to school with him. Like me, he’s building anticipation for the next step.

“Bub and Pie are going to nursery school!” he announced today, lapsing into the third person as he is wont to do occasionally.

“You will go to nursery school,” I amended, “but Pie will be at Allison’s house.”

“Pie is going to Allison’s house,” he agreed, “and Bub and Mama will go to nursery school!”

“I’ll take you to school,” I warned, “but I can’t go in with you – I have to go to work.”

Rarely have I heard a more incredulous inflection. “You’re going to work?” He knows that “work” is where Daddy goes all day, though both he and Pie often insist that Daddy is at Sharon’s house (their former day-care provider). As of next week, as far as Bub is concerned, both his parents will be spending their days over there, napping, finger-painting, and playing with toys while he and Pie get on with the business of growing up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

This Makes Me Happy


For Wordless Wednesday.

Let Me Help

Pie loves to help. As I empty the dishwasher, she fills it with toys, stuffing in plastic cups and saucers alongside wooden cookies and blueberry pie. At the grocery store, she holds the green peppers for me (insisting, sometimes, that I buy yellow or orange instead) and nibbles delicately at the stems when I’m not looking. She assists ably when it’s time to put the laundry away, handing me the towels one at a time or, when that gets boring, creating an obstacle course on the bed, dodging between piles to hand me the washcloth in triumph. “I’m helping,” she says, bristling with self-importance.

Bub is helpful too, but his assistance has to be approached differently. “Where does this belong?” I ask with a quizzical look. He takes the toy frying-pan from my hand and places it carefully and correctly on the Little Tikes stove. Appeals to his expertise will almost never be denied. The role of assistant is not one he covets – he is far more responsive when I defer to him as the expert.

According to a study I came across awhile ago, 17% of those diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder in toddlerhood move off the spectrum by the time they are four years old. They may still have a few quirks – they’re easy to find if you know what to look for – but the children are scoring within average parameters on various measures, and they’re coping in mainstream classrooms without assistance. The researchers looked for trends to predict which kids would move off the spectrum and found little correlation between the severity of the symptoms at age two and the later outcome. The most significant predictive factor was the presence of motor skills sufficient for the child to help with minor household tasks.

No one knows why this is the case. Does helping out around the house nurture a sense of independence and cooperation? Is motor ability linked to the murkily understood causes of autism? The researchers couldn’t say.

I thought of this study today as Pie helped me sort and put away the laundry. It’s a startlingly complex interaction, this helping around the house. It involves, on her part, an imitative instinct: she wants to be like me, to be able to do the things I do. In pursuit of that goal, she is willing to accept guidance: she’ll let me tell her where to put each piece of laundry, and she’ll repeat my instructions under her breath as she works: “One-at-a-time. One-at-a-time.”

There is a world of verbal and non-verbal communication that develops in the completion of a joint task. Pie watches my movements and mimics them as we mop the floors, I with my real mop and she with her smaller plastic one. We coordinate our movements, communicating by means of glances and facial expressions as well as words. Implicit in all of these acts of communication is another set of messages: You are capable and strong. You’re a good helper. You are a valuable contributing member of our family. You belong.

“I do it.” These words tumble out of Pie’s mouth every day as she increasingly invests her sense of self in her own competence, the immense capability that animates her strong and skilful limbs.

Bub, meanwhile, ignores our housekeeping antics until his particular skills are called for. Instead of performing tasks, he shares knowledge. “Do you know where your sister is?” I asked him the other day when he emerged from the jungle climbers at the indoor playground. He raced back in eagerly, full of big-brotherly zeal. A moment later he emerged, Pie crawling through the tunnel behind him, a bit teary-eyed with worry. “I found her!” he announced. “She needs a hug!” Bub loves to navigate, to explain, to display what he knows by using that expertise in the service of some other, less well-informed person.

Most of our mornings this summer have been spent having fun. We’ve gone to the beach, to the park, to the splash pad – all the places where toddlers and preschoolers can be turned loose to run around and do whatever they want. But in some ways, our best mornings have been the ones we’ve spent at home folding laundry, mopping floors, dusting bookshelves. One of the handiest tricks I’ve picked up to deal with bored children in the car or at the grocery store has been to involve them in the successful accomplishment of our task. “Keep an eye out for the Shreddies!” I tell them as we cruise the cereal aisle. “Don’t forget to tell me when it’s time to turn!” I remind them as we drive home.

One of the reasons I always liked returning to school each September was that there’s something empty about having fun solely for the sake of having fun. To feel that I was accomplishing something difficult and impressive (like multiplication or cursive writing) was more rewarding, in many ways, than simply having endless stretches of free time.

I wonder if even very small children occasionally feel the same way.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Embarrassing Revelations and Compensatory Silliness

1) One-Sentence Summation of My Post-Partum Sex-Life
I managed to make it past hubby’s birthday last week and our wedding anniversary without writing a post in his honour. Consider it my gift to him. But then the Mad Momma tagged me for the Worst Meme Ever. My task: to sum up my post-partum sex life in a single sentence. Should I take on the allegation that two vaginal births have transformed my lady parts into a two-car garage? Should I return to the subject of my exotic sexual fantasies (which are all about character and setting, but never about plot)? Should I make up complete fabrications about lingerie and the Kama Sutra? Or should I fall back on an obfuscating cliché? Okay – here goes:

Quality matters more than quantity.*

*The above statement should be understood to refer to frequency only and should not be construed as saying anything, one way or the other, about size.

2) Mudita
Hubby and I were talking last night about the pleasure of watching our children have fun. “It’s like the opposite of Schadenfreude,” he mused. “It’s the ability to take pleasure in another person’s good fortune, as opposed to taking pleasure in their failures.”

“Are those really opposites?” I pondered. “Or is the opposite of that pleasure really indifference – or possibly jealousy? And why isn’t there a word for that feeling?”

And then today I read this post, and googled “mudita.” According to Wikipedia, mudita is widely understood to be the opposite of Schadenfreude, and the archetypal instance of it is a parent’s joy in a child’s accomplishments.

You were right, hubby. Does that make up for my one-sentence report on our sex life?

3) Bloggers’ Remorse
Lots of people lately are publishing those posts. You know – the ones designed to bury the previous post, the results of morning-after nervousness about what happened the night before (even though what happened was just an unusually impassioned post that elicited a heartfelt and supportive response). On the whole, I’m in favour of Bloggers’ Remorse, not because I think the original posts were anything to be ashamed of, but because the retractions and apologies are so entertaining. There’s the hangover metaphor, the sudden frantic joke-making – good times. The funniest posts, apparently, are prompted by the need for off-the-cuff compensatory silliness.

4) Lies, Damned Lies, and Mommy-Talk
“I want a snack!” Bub yells. He’s following me around the house as I act belatedly on an oft-postponed urge to dust the cobwebs out of the ceiling corners. There are astonishingly intricate webs up there, and the sunlight is strong enough today that I can actually see them.

“I want some Goldfish!” Pie chimes in. “I want Goldfish, Shreddies, and Cheerios!”

“It’s Cheerios time!” Bub hollers. “Time for a snack!” The volume is rising with each repeated request – clearly they’re concerned that I may be hard of hearing.

I take a few quick swipes at the corner of the bedroom, stalling for time. “Let’s see,” I say. “Are you trying to say that you’re hungry?”

Bub calms down instantly, optimistically. “Yes, I’m hungry. I want a snack! I want Honey-Nut Cheerios!”

“Hmmm,” I muse. “Are you telling me that you want to have a snack?”

“Yes a snack,” Bub confirms. “Cheerios and milk in a bowl at the table!”

“You want Corn Squares?” I inquire innocently. Just one more room left to dust.

“Not Corn Squares, Cheerios!”

“Okay, let’s go get your snack.”

Playing dumb – it’s isn’t just for teenage German boys anymore.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

School of Blogs

I love back-to-school. As soon as the nights turn cooler, I start getting the itch for clothes-shopping and course-selection. One of the many things I relate to in Hermione Granger is her desire to pack her schedule full of more courses than it can temporally accommodate, Muggle Studies and Arithmancy jostling for elbow room alongside Divination and Potions. With a course calendar in my hand, I always feel like a kid in a candy store. A graduate seminar on the two Brownings? Sounds fantastic. An undergraduate introduction to Anthropology/Classical Studies/Italian/Developmental Psychology? Sign me up.

When I do course counseling for incoming first-year-students, I find that they fall into three groups. The largest group is career-minded: they want courses that will enable them to get into business school or pursue a career as a speech language pathologist. Even if they don’t have a specific ambition, they are pragmatic in their course selection, looking for a combination of med-school pre-requisites and easy A’s. The smallest group, by contrast, is apathetic: the challenge for them is mustering an interest in enough courses to fill their schedule, which is usually empty except for the first-year Psych super-section (which they’ve heard involves a lot of movie clips).

The final group, though – my favourite – contains the students who are excited about university, unjaded and eager to learn. These are the ones who find it hard to narrow their choices down: can they squeeze in Comparative Literature 025: Sex in Art and Culture and Philosophy 100: The History of Witchcraft? Or should they get their science credit out of the way with an Earth Science course on Darwin? They have that glint of back-to-school excitement in their eyes, and it's always a pleasure to help them sort out their options.

Back-to-school threatens to be a bit of a bumpy transition for me this year. I’m excited about the courses I’m teaching, but I’m also nervous about my full schedule and about Bub’s first year in a classroom environment. But still, I feel the familiar itch. I bought a brown corduroy blazer at H&M yesterday and a dark blue v-neck sweater at Old Navy. This afternoon I pulled down all the toddler-size hats and mittens from the shelf in the front-hall closet and sorted the outgrown gear from the stuff that can stand another year of wear. And I found myself wondering what courses I would sign up for if I could be a student myself this year. What would I choose if I could use Hermione’s time turner to spend another year in school, with no thought of job qualifications or pre-requisites, with no concern other than interest and enthusiasm?

I’d take Art History, I thought, as taught by Julie Q of Mental Tesserae. Or maybe theology, I decided, but only if Veronica Mitchell were teaching it.

I don’t go out of my way to read blogs for educational purposes – but the brilliance of the blogosphere is an education in itself. A school run by mommy-bloggers would be a fascinating place to learn. In that spirit, here’s my schedule of classes in the School of Blogs – the courses I wish I could take, led by the dazzling minds of the blogosphere:

1) Representations of Motherhood in Art. Instructor: Julie Q. This course will offer a chronological survey of the major schools of art from the 1500s to the present day, focusing on representations of mothers and children. Students will learn to examine spatial relationships, colour, and the evolving perceptions of motherhood. No prerequisites necessary.

2) Urban Photography. Instructor: Cinnamon Gurl. In this course, participants will be led on a series of walking tours where they will be encouraged to use the camera as a means of shaping and altering their perception of the urban environment. Attention will be paid to composition, digital enhancements, and the ethics of photographing human subjects. Students must provide their own digital cameras.

3) Home Economics. Instructor: Beck of Frog and Toad are Still Friends. This class will begin with a unit on baking, with special emphasis on cupcake decoration. Crafts and home decorations will be the focus of a second unit, during which students will be required to do a seminar presentation on the non-traditional holiday of their choice. A fee will be charged to cover the cost of ingredients and craft supplies; students will be able to sample their baking in class as well as take home goodies to share with their families.

4) Theology and Literature. Instructor: Veronica Mitchell. This course will examine medieval and modern theological debates through the lens of poetry and fiction. Drawing upon the poetry of John Donne and the writings of G.K. Chesterton, the course will survey the basic principles of orthodox Christianity, including the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the authority of Scripture. This course is cross-listed with the departments of English and Religious Studies.

5) Neuroscience for English Majors. Instructors: KC and Robbin. How does brain chemistry influence human behaviour? What are the biological bases for romantic love, sexual attraction, and long-term commitment? How do genetics and environment interact to form the human brain? If you have ever wondered about these questions, this is the course for you! This course is open to students outside the Faculty of Science; it may not be counted towards a Bachelor of Science degree.


Instructors, I hereby confer upon you the degree of Doctor of Blogging, honoris causa. Use it well, and feel free to pass it on.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Boys, Boys, Boys

I spent most of my teenage years anxiously avoiding Sin. Sin, unfortunately, lurks around every corner of a teenager’s life, so this anxiety existed in a constant uncomfortable tension with my equally strong desires for Popularity and a Boyfriend. (The means-end relationship varied between the two: sometimes I desired Popularity as a means of acquiring a Boyfriend, while at other times I was interested in a particular Boy primarily because he seemed like a suitable way to attain Popularity.)

My main method of Sin-avoidance was to stay away from parties. Parties, everyone knew, were hotbeds of illegal drinking, sex, drugs, and Sin of every variety. Avoiding parties was particularly easy given that I was never invited to any. It was a perfect balance between conviction on the one hand and lack of opportunity on the other.

All that changed when I turned seventeen. That year, our small-town hockey team won the Ontario Minor Hockey Association championship, spawning a season of parties to which I, as a small-town inhabitant who had warmed many a bench during the long winter hockey season, was duly invited. The most memorable of these was a party that seemed to be drawn straight from a John Hughes movie. The host was a fourth-string football player, a boy who was not popular himself but had access to all the popular people. By the time the night of the party rolled around, the rumour had spread throughout the whole school.

I wasn’t kidding when I said that I attended these parties in my capacity as an anthropologist. I came prepared to witness much sinful behaviour, and in a way I wasn’t disappointed. The party rapidly devolved into a frenzy of property-destruction: there was a bonfire in the back yard, and I looked on as some hooting revelers threw in various knick-knacks, including a hand-crafted pot-pourri wall-hanging made of braided wool and a few teaspoons of cinnamon and cloves gathered in squares of floral fabric. It struck me as astonishingly absurd that while our host’s mother was enjoying her vacation in Florida, some kid was taking it upon himself to burn this sad little piece of her kitchen décor.

The cops crashed the party at around eleven o’clock and the drunken masses fled to a wooded area behind the house, muffling squeals and giggles until the big searchlights retreated, at which point I heard someone whisper, “I wish the cops would chase us at every party!”

This party was everything I had expected parties to be: violent, illegal, and fun. What surprised me about the experience was the genial innocence of this ritual of law-breaking and teen rebellion. Despite all the vandalism and underage drinking, it was in essence a place of respite from the cutthroat politics of high school. The complicated social code of popularity was temporarily suspended; the only criteria that mattered were knowledge of the party’s whereabouts and willingness to attend. Once we crossed the threshold, anyone could talk to anyone; an atmosphere of friendly acceptance prevailed. In many ways, the school cafeteria was a far crueler hotbed of Sin than that party.

My season of party-going was short-lived. The simmering internal politics of my group of girlfriends boiled over a few weeks later, leaving me and my BFF firmly on the outside, temporarily stranded on the island of friendless teens. The following September found me choking down my peanut-butter sandwiches each day with Cornelia, the German exchange partner who had been selected for me based on my pre-party personality profile: I had indicated that weekly church attendance was “very important” and I had ranked “parties” last on my list of priorities, with “time at home with the family” as my top choice. As a result, I was saddled with a stern girl who scrupulously avoided any environment with loud music and insisted upon being home each Saturday night before ten.

Cornelia was like a caricature of the teenage misfit: she wore huge clunking green shoes and rolled the cuffs of her red pants so that a yellow Mickey Mouse pattern was revealed. “Not my favourite,” was her signature expression, one she used with a sulky expression whenever my mother served dinner. A week before she was due to return to Germany, she posted the date of “Cornelia’s Goodbye Party” on the chalkboard of all her classes, her idea of a subtle hint. At home, her favourite hobbies were ballroom dancing and participating in her local accordion orchestra.

To say that I was not eager to make my own trek to Cornelia-land would be an understatement. She stayed with my family from September through November, and I reluctantly flew to Germany at the beginning of March. What I didn’t realize was how perfect a foil Cornelia would make to the brand-new me I seized the opportunity to create as soon as I arrived in my new environment. By April I had settled into my made-in-Germany personality: I was a cuter, flirtier version of myself, both dumber and more rebellious than I was at home. It’s a very easy persona to assume when one is speaking a foreign language execrably. And it worked amazingly well: my diary is filled with the flirtations I carried on with multitudes of cute German boys, all of whom were generous with their attentions and none of whom ever tried to kiss me (much to my disappointment). I think I was protected by an uncrackable shell of innocence.

All this, then, is by way of a long introduction to a few excerpts from my German-exchange diary:

May 1, 1989
I can hardly write because my fingers are still frozen from riding my bicycle home at four in the morning from the “Tanz in den Mai,” a party held in a barn, the same place as the Easter Landjugendfest. Tonight was way more fun than the Easter party was, though. I went with Steffi, Kerstin, Yvonne, Claudia and a huge group of other kids from grade eleven. Cornelia stayed home. Ernst-Georg had told her that the Tanz in den Mai was the same as the Easter party except that people were rowdier and got drunk quicker, so she decided not to go.

It was like a rock concert – there was literally no room to move until about one-thirty when the early curfews had already left. I had no curfew, despite Cornelia’s efforts to get me one – she actually brought up the subject at the dinner table (I had been keeping a discreet silence on the subject). Papa rose gallantly to the occasion, however, and said that when I got home, that was when I had to be home.

I got separated from Steffi several times, but that didn’t matter because there were tons of other people I knew. I stood around for awhile talking with Michael, a good-looking guy from my math class – he promised to help me cheat if I had to write the math test next Saturday (a math test on Saturday!). Andreas (Horst-Rüdiger’s friend) came up to me just as we were leaving and said that he hadn’t seen me all evening (I hadn’t seen him either), and asked if I was going to Horst-Rüdiger’s birthday party on Friday (I am).

The big shocker of the evening was Steffi – I was separated from her for the earlier part of the evening, so I don’t know how much she had to drink, but when I finally found her (after being trampled several times on the dance floor looking for her – these Germans love slam dancing) she was hanging onto this gross guy with a mustache, and spent the rest of the night as closely attached to him as possible. I had an idea that Steffi had a better social life than Cornelia, but I didn’t think she was … the type to stand in the middle of a dance floor with two thousand people around her, with her tongue down the throat of some guy that she’s not even going out with (as far as I know).

May 5, 1989
We were at Horst-Rüdiger’s birthday party tonight from about five until nine-thirty, at which point Cornelia dragged me away with many warnings about how I have to get up tomorrow to write my exciting math test. I was having a good time. Ernst-Georg, Horst-Rüdiger, Markus, his girlfriend Ulrika, and Andreas were all there. That’s a grand total of four amazingly gorgeous guys, and just enough girls to go around. The best-looking one (Markus) was already very much taken, unfortunately. Actually, it’s not even that he’s so much better looking than the others, but boy oh boy, he’s got something. He came in, all dirty, sunburned and sweaty from work. He makes roofs.

Cornelia told me that before I arrived Markus was saying, jokingly, that if there’s a new girl around maybe it was about time to change girlfriends. She told him that my heart was occupied elsewhere (meaning Jeff). I forgot to ask whether she meant Jeff H. or Jeff D. – it could quite easily be either.

I’m beginning to feel really boy-crazy. At one point tonight the subject came up of what girls talk about when there aren’t any guys around. “Tell us,” Andreas pressed, but we either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell.

“They’ll talk about you tonight, Andreas,” Markus said at last, laughing. Cornelia, Gabriele and I burst into laughter, knowing full well that that was exactly what we planned to do; and it was, in fact, what we did do, undaunted, the moment we got home.

May 9, 1989
In my free period today I went to the reading room-type-place. Michael (from math class) was walking up the stairs ahead of me and asked me what I had next. Since we both had free periods, we went together. He flopped down on the couch, but I had homework, so I sat at the table. After an appropriate pause, Michael came and sat down beside me and helped me with my math homework (I’m afraid I pretended to be a bit dumber than I am). He’s very cute. He’s got brown hair, freckles, and a turned-up nose. He had a piece of paper with him, and he tore it up into little pieces, rolled them up and threw them all at me.

May 30, 1989
Here are all the people I talked to at the Schulfest disco:

GIRLS: Ayse, Conny, Silke, Silke #2 (both from my chemistry class), Steffi, Jessie, and Claudia from English class. (I know five Claudias: Floh, the one from accordion orchestra, the one that lives next door, the one from Godspell, and this one).

BOYS: (this one is more interesting)
1) Ernst-Georg – he and Horst-Rüdiger were both there. I wanted to see the band, but there were too many people in the way, so he propped me up on his shoulders, from which vantage point I could see everything, including Michael standing only a few feet away. I wish I knew if Michael liked me or not. It would make things much easier.

2) Andreas – yes, good old Andreas. I finally know how to spell his last name – because he gave me his card and told me to call him on Sunday (as if I would). He was a bit besoffen, and very friendly. We stood around talking on at least three occasions, and each time he came up to me he pinched my waist to make me jump (which I always obligingly did, with a little shriek). He’s tall, good-looking, smart, older, in every way perfect, so why is it that when he touches my face, I automatically pull back? From an objective point of view he’d be an amazing catch, but I am totally unattracted.

3) I only saw Michael three times – once when I was on Ernst-George’s shoulders (he walked by and said hello), again a bit later (he elbowed me in the back by way of greeting, but as I was already talking to Heino he just continued on his way), and then lastly just before it ended. Andreas had both his hands on my face at that point and I was trying not to flinch (because I’m still trying to convince myself that I like him), and then suddenly there was Michael, just kind of looking at me.

4) Bernd (star of Godspell) – Cornelia said he had asked about me so I went up and said hi when I saw him and he lifted me right off the ground in a big bear hug, then put me down and kissed me (on the cheek), telling me how great I was in the “Macbeth murder mystery” skit [put on by the grade 12 English class for Schulfest]. That’s typical Bernd behaviour and he doesn’t mean a thing by it, but it’s fun.

5) Ralph – He came up at the end (I having just escaped the clutches of Andreas) and told me how tired he was. “Oh, you’re just like Cornelia,” I scoffed. He just looked at me very gravely. “Don’t you say such a thing,” he warned ominously, and then grabbed me under the arms, lifted me into the air, and shook me, while I screamed, of course. I always scream in those situations. I act like a real airhead, actually, but it seems to be working quite well.

6) Andreas #2 – he’s a guy from my English class, to whom I’d never spoken before tonight. He really seemed to have decided to try his luck with the Canadian girl, because he came up to me right out of the blue and started talking. He wants to be a journalist in war-torn countries. He likes heavy-metal music. He came to class drunk on Tuesday because it was his brother’s birthday. How do I like Germany? Is the school the same as in Canada? Blah, blah, blah. He’s really a good conversationalist, actually. Better than “Struby,” with whom I’m always falling into awkward silences. But not at all good-looking, though he’s popular enough. A whole group of guys came up after awhile, all of them about a foot taller than me, making what sounded like ribald jokes, and punching Andreas in the silly way guys are always punching each other to look cool. “They are betting,” explained Andreas in faulty English, “They make bets on whether I get you.”

Oh, yeah.

*****

What strikes me when I read this diary is not only how false and contrived my German-exchange persona was, but also how I still have it in my back pocket. I whip it out from time to time, in situations where cuteness and helplessness seem to be called for. I still have certain mannerisms and traits that I invented in 1989, more or less consciously, to go along with my identity as “the Canadian girl.”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Neighbours

(A belated Hump Day Hmmm…)

It’s hard to be a writer when you’re eighteen years old. You’re old enough to have outgrown the universal desire to write children’s books (the one that possesses anyone who has read Little Women and yearned to be Jo March). You want to write something grown-uppish, or if that sounds too intimidating, at least a Harlequin. (Is it time for me to switch to the first person and past tense yet?) There’s only one problem: at eighteen, you have virtually no experience of the grown-up world. By default, your heroine has to be a high-school teacher, and that still leaves the problem of setting. Harlequin romances, like blogs, have much to gain from being set in an intriguing locale.

Good settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:

  • London, England (as in Bridget Jones’ Diary)
  • Chicago (as in the movie version of High Fidelity)
  • New York (as in everything – but just for fun let’s say Sex in the City)

Serious fiction can take place in small-town or rural settings – anything in the South will do, and even small-town Ontario can work if you can shake off the influence of Alice Munro. But if you’re going to write a TV-show/book/blog about nothing, it’s essential that all that nothingness take place in an upscale and/or gritty urban environment. Crappy settings, in light realist fiction, are as follows:

  • suburban Ohio
  • the MidWest, post-1880
  • London, Ontario

I’ve always felt handicapped as a writer by the blandness of my hometown. From the point of view of outsiders, I’ve been told, London is a great place to live. It has a vibrant strip of shops and restaurants downtown, fun annual summer festivals, and several residential areas with lovely Victorian architecture. There are markets full of fresh-picked fruit and corn in the summer, and there’s skating in Victoria Park in the winter. The university is as renowned for its beautiful landscaping as it is for its ivy and limestone.

Still, though. Living in London is the definition of boring. At one time, London boasted the most mall-space per capita of any city in North America. That has changed now only because of the advent of big-box stores. When I moved to Kingston as a university student I was enchanted by the atmosphere of its narrow tree-lined streets. Beautifully renovated homes rubbed shoulders with student ghetto dumps, all within walking distance of the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted at the Chinese Laundry café. Each September, the town was flooded with frosh wearing the traditional uniform of purple-paint-spattered coveralls, along with cadets from the military college in their mandatory dress blues and pillbox hats.


I could write a novel, were I so inclined, set in Kingston – London is another matter.

I’m so accustomed to thinking of London as bland and white-bread that this perception has become astonishingly resistant to the influence of experience. London is a culturally diverse city, and my neighbourhood even more so. Yesterday as I drove to the grocery store, I saw a family waiting for the bus: a small boy in a stroller held in place by his father, and a mother sitting cross-legged on the ground, her spine ramrod straight. They were the best argument against miscegenation I’ve ever seen, their skin arresting in its glossy blackness. I completed my errand quickly, and when I drove past five minutes later they were still there, the mother standing up now, resplendent in her long red African dress cut along straight, simple lines. She stood tall, in the late stages of pregnancy, and looked so gorgeous that for a moment the bus stop and grocery store faded and I felt something that was oddly akin to homesickness.


These are the people in my neighbourhood.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Really Useful Stories

“I’m covered in dust!” the Pie announces as we drive home from the park.

“Like Percy?” I inquire.

“Yes,” Pie replies decidedly. “I am Percy.”

“And Bub is a Troublesome Truck!” I add.

Bub is unimpressed. “No! I’m Bub! And you are Mama!”

Undeterred by his dogged realism, I push the issue. “Nope. I’m Emily!”

“No,” replies Bub more calmly. “That is not a favourite train. How about James?”

We are agreed: I am James, Daddy is Donald, Pie is Percy, and Bub is Bub. As we’re getting out of the car a few minutes later, I urge Pie (by name) to hurry up.

“I’m Percy!” she says in a wounded tone.

“Oh, sorry Percy,” I apologize.

“That’s okay, James” she responds.

*****

Here's why Thomas the Tank Engine is so popular: everything about the Island of Sodor and its inhabitants is simple and straightforward. Fancy names like Percy and Skarloey are merely window-dressing – the trains remain firmly identifiable by size, colour, and number. The system, once mastered, is capable of infinite variations, a superstructure of complexity built on a very simple system of identifying characteristics. Bumbling grown-ups may confuse Gordon with Thomas, but no two-year-old would make so fundamental a mistake.

Emotions in Thomas’s world are as easily identifiable as the trains themselves. The only moving parts of the trains’ faces are the eyebrows and the mouths, yet they can convey not only happiness, sadness and anger but also a whole roster of subtler emotions: frustration, worry, over-confidence.

The moral vision of the Rev. Awdry has this same combination of simplicity and complexity. The ideal of Real Usefulness is charmingly straightforward, but it also involves a kind of balancing of opposites. James, for instance, is a strong, shiny engine, attention-grabbing with his bold red (toxic) paint: he’s fast and powerful, but inclined towards arrogance. Thomas, on the other hand, has the frailties of youth: impulsivity, playfulness, undisciplined energy. The ideal towards which both trains strive is industrious self-control: to be Really Useful they must subordinate not only their mischief but also their ambition to the greater task of serving Sir Topham Hatt (the Fat Controller) and the corporate machine he represents.

I’ve skewered this inculcation of the Protestant work ethic before. What’s not so easy to explain is the inherent charm of this earnestly Victorian ideal. Recently, I ordered a review copy of this book, a collection of four Thomas tales:


It’s not entirely clear to me who wrote the stories for this collection: Rev. Awdry is credited for creating the series, but the copyright for these particular tales is only a couple of years old. Nevertheless, the first two stories have that familiar blend of simplicity and didacticism: they are about submitting to the unreasonable dictates of authority figures like the local constable and earning one’s place by exchanging mutinous trickery for a humble acceptance of apparently inglorious tasks. The third story is a bit different: the trains tell ghost stories in the station at night. In Scooby-Doo fashion, however, there is a rational explanation for the goings-on at the haunted castle, and Thomas's willingness to keep working despite his fears earns some well-deserved words of approbation from Sir Topham Hatt.

The final story, however, is a kind of Sodor-meets-Hogwarts blend of fantasy and realism: there is a hidden Magical Railway; there is gold dust that appears, uncharacteristically, to be magical rather than financial; there is a prophesy, and a mysterious Lady, and a hidden portal. There’s even a villain, the evil plotter Diesel 10. Everything about this story is just so, so wrong.

On the Island of Sodor the trains can talk, but the world of Thomas the Tank Engine is not about fantasy or even about fun. It is about working hard and occupying one’s place in the world with cheerful obedience. Both my children and I enjoy the simplicity of the early stories, not for their morals perhaps, but for their familiarity, their predictability. Thomas is beloved precisely because it nurtures a sense of mastery: it is not about mystery or suspense but rather about knowing ahead of time exactly what will happen and why. The target audience is preschoolers who relish repetition because it gives them a foothold of understanding in a confusing world.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Scared

The Pie is worried.

On the second-last page of the book, Madeline’s bed is still ominously empty – and the other little girls all have tummy-aches that no one seems to be taking seriously. It’s a cliff-hanger ending, one that leaves her studying the illustrations long after the lights are out, using the last rays of daylight to peer hopefully into the book, looking for reassurance.

She’s starting to suspect that something’s up. At the grocery store the other day an ambulance went by. “Someone is sick,” she announced to her father when we got home. “They need to go to the hopspital.” Despite my heartily false assurances that the doctors will make the sick people better – that there will, in fact, be toys and candy and a doll-house from papa – she senses in the urgency of the wailing sirens a hint of tragedy lurking just outside the corners of her well-ordered life. Within the sphere of the known are picnics and babies and trips to IceCream Robbins, but just beyond those flickering boundaries are dark shadows. She doesn’t know what they mean, but she mistrusts them.

“I’m scared of that one,” she told me this week, pointing to the stair of our back porch. I bent down to see what had created this sudden phobia in my formerly fearless girl, and it was a tiny spider web. No spider was in residence and no bugs were wrestling against their cobwebby shackles – it was just a tiny net of gossamer, too fragmentary to catch anything but a few bits of dry leaves.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “This step is safe to land on.” She put her foot down delicately, then promptly forgot her sudden impulse of arachnophobia as she ran off to tussle with Bub over the division of the back-yard toys. Her scrappy self is still capable of chasing away that dawning awareness of danger, sadness, pain.

It is not that my daughter is becoming fearful. Like Madeline herself she is confident, sure of herself, daunted by nothing. I don’t know if she would say “Pooh-pooh” to a tiger at the zoo – she beat a hasty retreat yesterday from a sudden face-to-face encounter with a horse at the petting-zoo barn. From the safety of her crib, though, she insists that “the big horse” was her favourite part; she believes in her own fearlessness, and her self-concept is in no way damaged by the occasional need to admit that she is scared.

She is not a fearful child, but she is wary. She doesn’t yet know the things we grown-ups have schooled ourselves to forget, but she recognizes her ignorance for what it is, and she guards herself accordingly.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Not Ready

At a friend’s house, yesterday, further evidence that Bub is not quite ready for JK:

5-year-old Boy: Hey, I want to show you something!
(Bub continues putting on his sandals.)
5yoB: Come here! I want to show you something!
(Aware now that he is being spoken to, Bub looks up with an expression of pleasant indifference and makes no move towards the other boy.)
5yoB: (spluttering a little) But I want to SHOW you something! Come look! I’m going to show you!
(Bub smiles in a friendly way, and stands motionless.)
5yoB: (brow furrowed) But … you’re three!

And later…

Bub: (speaking in narrative, his new habit) It's time for lunch said mama. Can I have macaroni and cheese I asked.
3-year-old-Girl: (to Bub) You talk funny!
Her Mother: (mortified) You do not talk like that to our guests! Now you be nice!
3yoG: (addressing Bub with an enchanting smile) Do you want to play with me?
(Bub returns her smile but says nothing.)
3yoG: (darting an enraged look at her mother) I’m being nice! Do – you – want – to – play – with – me?
(She heads downstairs to the playroom and Bub follows.)
Me: Bub, you can say, “Yes, okay!”
Bub: (happily) Yes, okay!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Are You Still In Love?

Because I’m not.

I ask this question every time I see a certain friend of mine who got married two years ago. She always happily affirms that she is, indeed, still in love, and I roll my eyes. At our most recent coffee-date, however, we got down to brass tacks. What exactly do we mean when we say that we are – or are not – in love?

When I am in love, I experience the following symptoms:

  • Loss of appetite. I can eat if I have to, but I never want to. This symptom lasts anywhere from three to six months, and is my favourite weight-loss plan. (The Divorce Diet is equally effective, but not nearly as fun.)

  • Inability to be away from the loved one. Circumstances usually dictate that separations must occur, but these feel unnatural and wrong, as if I’m walking around with a bloody stump where my arm used to be, and bystanders are getting dripped on.

  • Waves of euphoria when I am with the loved one. Better than chocolate. (This symptom applies only to requited love.)

  • Instant, effortless memorization of every word that passes the loved one’s lips. (This symptom is especially true for unrequited love.)

  • Total loss of objectivity and rational thought as regards the merits and personality of the loved one (though these faculties remain mostly operational in regard to other matters).

  • A propensity to sing the following song, out loud, where people can hear me: “I hear singing and there’s no one there / I smell blossoms and the trees are bare / All day long, I seem to walk on air! / I wonder why? I wonder why?” (There are more verses. I could go on.)

I am keenly aware of how insufferable these symptoms make me to ordinary people, but I’ve been told that my attempts at concealment are quite effective. The above-mentioned friend (she of the never-ending honeymoon) swears that I was quite tolerable company when the two of us shared a research trip to England a few months after now-husband and I began dating. I feel a sharp pang of nostalgia when I remember that trip – mornings spent in the British Library, sandwiches from Prêt-à-Manger for lunch, afternoons devoted to visiting the National Portrait Gallery or browsing in the bookstores on Charing Cross Road. Tarnishing all these experiences, though, was my constant, painful longing, as if I were being slowly suffocated for lack of the essential oxygen of communication with the one I loved. The day before we flew home, while my friend sadly bade farewell to Hampstead Heath and Madame Tussaud’s, I mentally clicked my heels and sang “I’m leaving on a jet plane!”

That is what it is to be in love.

Make no mistake: I enjoy being in love. But there’s no denying that it is a debilitating condition, one that I would never want to prolong beyond the requisite two-year endorphin rush. It was a relief for me to get married, to settle into the comfort of a relationship that felt less like a medical condition and more like real life. These days, marriage is no longer about being in love. It’s about feeling that I have a partner, someone who stands beside me, sharing the load. It’s about taking turns staying home so that the other person can go out and eat ice cream or play D&D on games night. It is, as Her Bad Mother once said, a pillow fort of shared jokes, mutual liking and hard-won trust.

I put on what is probably my last bridesmaid’s dress last weekend, standing up for another idealistic, madly-in-love friend of mine (one who always looks aghast when hubby and I cheerfully announce that we’re no longer in love). The bouquet of pink roses I carried down the aisle is blooming cheekily on the piano, as radiant as the 26-year-old bride herself. Just for fun, I put my own seven-year-old bridal bouquet beside it:


It is gnarled and brown – but there is something in the spicy aroma that lingers in the faded leaves that I like better than the scent of fresh roses.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Now Slimmer For Your Comfort

Pie: (joyfully) I found it! It's a wonderful diaper!

(Thump, thump, thump as she runs down the hall to show me.)

I want to put on this wonderful diaper!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Lit-Crit 202

It’s International Blog Against Racism Week. I’m late to the party as usual, and I forgot to bring a salad.

You say that we've got nothing in common
No common ground to start from
And we're falling apart …
And I said what about "Breakfast at Tiffany's?
She said, "I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it."
And I said, "Well, that's the one thing we've got."

I can still remember how shocked we were, the day my Lit-Crit professor explained that we weren’t allowed to talk about the universal human family anymore.

It was my third year of university, so I had long since adapted to the need to substitute “human family” for “brotherhood of man.” But I thought it was just a matter of semantics – surely we still wanted to believe in a fundamental common humanity that makes the whole world kin?

Nope. Universals, it appeared, were a middle-class Eurocentric mechanism to rid the world of baklava, curry, and reggae music. To gesture towards a shared humanity was to impose a drab uniformity, one that would fit comfortably only if one shared the hegemonic white, Western, Christian, capitalist values that informed it. Instead of seeing people as possessors of a shared human essence, we were to see them as “sites” where various markers of identity intersected. What I think of as “me,” I learned that winter morning, is really the product of a peculiar mix of cultural identities: white, female, child of the seventies, teen of the late eighties, affiliated with a “Bible” church that lacked the respectability of a real denomination in a largely secular Canadian/Ontario/Southwestern Ontario culture.

All my life I’d thought that tolerance meant seeing myself and others as more than the sum of these parts. Not so, my lit-crit prof explained. The remedy for racism is not in a shared universal humanity but rather in a thorough and painstaking acknowledgement of difference.

Two opposed impulses, both with the same goal: to overcome racism, the humanist moves towards the general and universal, while the post-structuralist moves towards particularity.

It is not coincidental that I imbibed these ideas in a class on literary criticism. The academic machine has benefited enormously from the abandonment of universal values. There is only so much one can say about the conflict between good and evil in King Lear. Even extending the field to include Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows won’t buy us more than an hour or two of lecture time. Universals lend themselves perilously well to concision, the enemy of academic effort in the humanities. Particularity, on the other hand, bears academic fruit in season and out of season. (J.K. Rowling’s portrayal of print journalism and its relationship to the U.K.’s involvement in the war in Iraq: Discuss.)

My Ph.D. thesis is a good case in point: one of the central texts was Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, a novel that culminates in a key conversation between the staunchly Protestant heroine, an Englishwoman living in Belgium, and the man she loves, a devout Catholic. When Lucy cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” M. Paul repeats her words in French, recognizing in them a kernel of shared faith that overcomes the mutual prejudice that divides them. It is a deeply humanist moment that is clearly pivotal to the novel, yet I had little use for it in my dissertation, the purpose of which was to situate the novel as a response to the Papal Aggression of 1850 (in which the Pope appointed bishops in England and sent the whole nation into paroxysms of fury and paranoia: for about five years thereafter, whenever a twig snapped, Britons jumped and looked anxiously over their shoulders for a priest hiding behind the bushes ready to stamp them with the Mark of the Beast).

Anyhow. My point is that my lit-crit training prepared me to wield a very fine scalpel indeed, pegging Brontë not only as a Protestant but also as an Englishwoman, a member of the Church of England, someone influenced by the Evangelical movement (especially in her anti-Catholicism), but also rooted in Broad Church teachings. In my analysis, she emerges as a product of her time, and by “time” I don’t mean the Victorian age – I mean the first half of the 1850s.

To understand those of another race or culture, I’ve been told, I must pursue an inexhaustible knowledge of my own particularities, and theirs. Race, gender, class, religion, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, weight, physical appearance, height, birth order, generation (X, Y, Z) … there’s no real reason ever to stop adding to the list, slicing up the differences that divide us into ever smaller categories.

As an approach to literary criticism, it works. It generates interesting readings, and (just as importantly) it generates multiple readings. But as a solution to the problem of racism? I don’t know. I have sympathy for those who are impatient with identity politics, skeptical of the value of this endless scrutiny of differences. Is there anything in such understanding that motivates true political change? Is an accurate knowledge of the “Other” more important than the impulses of benevolence rooted in a recognition of sameness? If that “recognition” is really little more than narcissistic projection, might it not still be useful as a basis for political action?

The at-times heated discussion of race in the blogosphere that has taken place at BlogRhet this week illustrates the divide I alluded to at the beginning of this post (can you remember back that far?). There are humanists who insist upon the value of seeing beyond race, and then there are (many more) post-structuralists who insist that such colour-blindness is impossible or – worse – itself a privilege of whiteness. For all that this is couched in very theoretical terms, it is ultimately a very practical question – what works better? To focus on the human traits that bind us together? Or to examine and seek to understand the cultural differences that divide us?

What do you think? Can the “universal human family” make a comeback, along with skinny jeans and big hair? Or should it remain in Room 101, where the postmodernists have banished it?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Her Mother's Daughter

“I need to feel better!”

The plaintive wail rises up amid a flood of tears. I have denied her cookies before breakfast. She has scraped her knee on some loose gravel. It is time to turn the TV off.

Daily tragedies, all worthy of a few wails of acknowledgement. But lately it is not enough to mourn the passing of those heady cookie-eating, Dora-watching, free-running dreams that real life so often falls short of. Pie has become much more solution-oriented than that. She needs to feel better.

I can trace the genealogy of this urge to my father. Where my mother is prone to guilt and anxiety, my sister and I are consummate appliers of emotional Band-Aids. We specialize in the administration of medicinal brownies-and-ice-cream. We know exactly the right blend of grieving time and escapism, retreating to our bedrooms for a good cry and then emerging to pop in a video of Austin Powers. Crying, laughter, chocolate. Alone time, good friends. These are the things that make us feel better.

This is a skill we’ve inherited from our father, whose solution to all difficulties is golf. For him, neither the emotions nor the remedy are complex, but I think anyone will acknowledge that he applies his medicine regularly.

Pie is expanding her repertoire of home remedies. The words “feel better” at one time referred exclusively to diaper rash ointment, but the principle is capable of broader application. A book, a bowl of yogourt, a CD of sing-along songs – these things can ease her emotional pain. Stuck in the back seat of the car, she needs my hand in order to feel better, tugging the fingers this way and that and announcing delightedly, “You give me back my hand!”

When the effects of the treatment have taken hold, she never fails to issue her report. “I’m happy,” she sighs contentedly, knowing that happiness never feels better than when it is snatched from the jaws of despair.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Unplugged

Cottage vacation 2007 has come to an end – the children are back to pooping and sleeping on schedule, and I am back to blogging. My in-laws’ cottage is the real kind of cottage: linoleum floors, paper-thin walls, and orange-and-brown floral-print furniture. The walls are decorated with 1970s prints of surfing doll-children, along with a glued-together puzzle depicting Neuschwanstein castle. One can go into a cottage like that, but it still feels like outside with the windows thrown open and the floors strewn with sand. Inside is simply a more contained version of outside, a convenient place to stow the children while I prepare yet another pot of macaroni and cheese.

That’s from my perspective, of course. From the children’s perspective, there is an absolute division between inside and outside. Outside is the world of tactile play and gross-motor activity. They run and splash; they carry buckets of water and pour them over carefully piled-up mountains of sand. They dig into the wet sand with greedy hands, shaping, smearing, pouring, smoothing. When they go inside, however, a switch is thrown and they immerse themselves in pretend play. Ancient Fisher-Price buses crash off of armchair-cliffs, and the passengers (animals from a cardboard puzzle) are strewn over the floor below. “Are you okay?” Bub asks with well-feigned concern. “Everyone’s all right!” he announces a moment later, manoeuvering a dinky-car bulldozer into position to pull the bus out of the cavern.

When I’m at the cottage, I like to tell myself that I am living the life of my pioneer ancestors – the life they would have lived, at least, if they had access to electric appliances and back issues of People magazine. (Julia Roberts’ pregnancy was not, it appears, the well-kept secret I thought it was; Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson have, apparently, broken up.) Cottage life forces me to live from the neck down. It is hot; sweat and sand mingle in crevices I’m not ordinarily aware of. The part of my brain that churns out blog posts is temporarily disabled – there is a kind of thundering silence, a deafening absence where the hum of words and sentences used to be.

Food takes on a new significance. At home, suppertime always takes me by surprise. At five o’clock, I suddenly remember that I need to think of a plan, scavenging through my refrigerator with a kind of hopeless optimism. At the cottage, supper is in the works from 10 am, when we walk up to the variety store to buy corn from the back of a truck, assured by the driver that these cobs were picked only hours before. Ice cream cones are the focal point of the evening as we walk over to Wallygators for scoops of Moose Tracks and Bear Claw. Even Bub, who spits out his mouthful of strawberry kiddie-cone, is fascinated by the illustrated list of flavours, memorizing the sequence: Vanilla, Butterscotch Ripple, Black Cherry.

Aside from eating, the main activity at the cottage is sleeping. I go to bed shortly after dark, packing away the Scrabble board and reading a chapter or two of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets before turning out the light. The children call out often in the night, unsure of where they are, wanting reassurance that their parents are near. Thus punctuated by frequent interruptions, my sleep is full of uneasy dreams – rage dreams at my ex-husband (who knew I still had those, buried in the darkest recesses of the night?), high-school reunions, terrifying stalker-nightmares, and Nancy-Drew detective mysteries that I try vainly to recall when I get up in the morning. (I would have caught the counterfeiters, I’m sure, if only I had been able to sleep just a few moments longer!) Bub is up at six, but the Pie snuggles into bed with me until eight, her forehead pressed into my shoulder, her body perfectly still. Occasionally, she mutters a few words, pulling me out of my light doze. “It’s me!” she whispers. “It’s Mama,” she adds, patting my breast with a proprietary hand.

I tried to compose this post many times while I was at the cottage, struggling in vain to dredge words up from my sun-baked brain. And then I got home and the words came back, tumbling out of me this morning as I changed sandy sheets from last night’s hasty bedtime. The comfortable hum of air-conditioning and writing has resumed.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007