Thursday, January 31, 2008

Literary Non-Posts

Two not-quite-a-posts that have been knocking about in my head this week:

Lies, Secrets, and Silence

I'm teaching Dracula this week, talking about the ways in which information is shared among the vampire-hunters. Several characters contribute personal diaries to the collaborative narrative, and they do so with evident anxiety: their private, personal selves are being subsumed by the group. Mina takes these intimate, personal recordings and translates them from coded shorthand notes and phonograph cylinders into a uniform typescript, smooth, readable, public. Notably, the men feel far more anxiety about this process than the women do: where Mina shares her diary willingly, valuing openness in both her marriage and her friendships, the men experience the sharing of their private journals as a loss of power: the pooling of information strengthens the group but weakens each individual's status within it; those who remain in a position of leadership do so by hoarding secrets.

Post Development Angles:

(1) Memories of grade five: sharing secrets as a means of cementing friendships with other girls.

(2) Comparison to last night's season finale of Lost: Ben wants desperately to persuade Jack to stay on the island - so much so that he's willing to do anything up to but not including a clear and open exchange of information. ("They're the bad guys" is the best he can do - no hint of why the island is so coveted by the bad guys, or of what he's protecting or why.)

(3) Provocative generalizations about gender, gossip, and blogging (feel free to ad lib these at will).

Hiding in Plain Sight

On deck for next week is Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter," the quintessential tale of hiding an object in plain sight. It reminds me of an experiment I signed up for when I was taking Psych 101: when I arrived at the time and place specified I was ushered into an office and asked to wait for the grad student who would interview me. While I was waiting, a woman ducked her head into the office, grabbed a purse, and left again. Moments later I was earnestly assured that the "crime" I had just witnessed was actually staged for my benefit. Then I was asked to provide a description of the thief, a task at which I failed dismally, having (a) never suspected that the woman was not the rightful owner of the purse and (b) extremely limited powers of observation at the best of times.

Post Development Angles:

(1) Like me, Bub exhibits almost no ability to observe and record the details of his physical environment. (In that respect, we are the anti-Sherlock Holmes.) Pie, on the other hand, has the makings of a detective in her: she notices everything.

(2) What we notice, most of us, is not the crime but the concealment thereof: had the woman been wearing a ski-mask, or broken into a run as soon as she had the purse in her hands, I might have noticed something. This is a mistake made by most fictional criminals: they sprint through the crowd instead of blending into it; they conceal their horcruxes behind elaborate magical protections that are like waving a flag to Dumbledore and saying, "Here it is!"

(3) Brilliant application to blogging that will tie the two non-posts together into an insightful and coherent whole. Something to do with women protecting themselves by publishing their secrets online rather than hoarding them? You tell me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Name That Bible Story

We didn't get a Sunday School paper for the Pie on Sunday, so our attempts to review the content of the lesson have been based entirely on the craft she brought home: a sticker-page featuring various urns (some with flowers and some without) and three finger puppets.

There's a "Man" and a "King":


And also a "Friend":


Additional information: The King was kind. The Man was unkind. When asked if she knew the name of the King (David? Nebuchadnezzar? Saul or Ahab?), Pie suggested "Jesus." ("He's on top," she explained.)

Can you figure it out? What Bible story were they teaching this Sunday?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Public Opinion Polls

So let's say that after a very pleasant morning at the library, a mother decides that she can herd her two-year-old through the mall and into the car while carrying four litres of milk in one hand and seven kilograms of kitty litter in the other. And let's say that the two-year-old decides to spend the rest of her day peering at a vending machine full of $2 stuffed animals. Should we blame the ensuing spectacle of mother pulling screaming toddler by the wrist then abandoning groceries to carry screaming toddler to the car before locking her in (unbelted) then returning with groceries to find toddler in the driver's seat heaving shuddering sobs between shouts of "Go away!" "Leave me alone!" and "I want a soother!" on the toddler's poor decision-making or the mother's?

*****

Niobe's post on blog noms-de-plume (nom-de-plumes?) has served to revive the question of my blog name, or lack thereof. When I started this blog, my focus was on achieving name recognition: I slapped the name "Bub and Pie" in the header, in the URL, and in my username. (It was not by chance that my blog-title began with the letter B. Having recently discovered the blogosphere by clicking through people's blogrolls, I was aware of my own tendency to start at the top and work my way down, so I wanted a name near the beginning of the alphabet, all part of my sneaky plan to achieve world blog domination.)

There are various problems with the name "bubandpie." No one really knows when or if to capitalize it (myself included); it doesn't actually refer to me but rather to my children; it isn't actually a name. On the other hand, it's my name. I feel the same shock of recognition when I see it in print as I do when I hear my real name spoken aloud. Though I've never been wholly satisfied with it, I'm reluctant to make a change - it seems pretentious somehow, or silly. A friend of my sister's recently changed her name from Laurie to Tatiana and my response to the news was "Who does that?" I always feel the urge to mock people who nickname themselves "Dawg" or "Axel" - if they really were that cool, they wouldn't need to invent their own nicknames.

So it's highly unlikely that I will ever actually change my blog-name. But it's fun to imagine what I would change it to if I were going to. As I see it, my options are these:

(1) my real-life first name (like Beck)
(2) a real name that I like (like Veronica Mitchell)
(3) a first name that is obviously a nom-de-plume due to its literary or mythological associations (like Niobe)
(4) a nickname linked to the theme of my blog (like Mad Hatter)
(5) a nickname that I like (like Cinnamon Gurl)

In category (2) I lean toward the unusual: Saffron, Bronwyn, Valancy. Category (3) yields some interesting - yet somehow subtly wrong - possibilities: Marilla, Hermione, Harriet the Spy. In the themed nickname category, I am thoroughly stumped: pie flavours? something about books? And then there are just random fun ideas like Sabrina the Middle-Aged Witch. (What does that even mean?)

Ideally, I would prefer something from categories (3) or (4) - something cleverly reminiscent of the name BubandPie (possibly still with the initials B&P?), yet clearly belonging to me rather than to the blog or my children. Ideas? Votes?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fashion Forward

Here are the bits of information I would like to sow cleverly into my narrative so that you will scarcely notice that they are there:

(1) At nursery school, Bub wears a pair of fluffy dog slippers.

(2) Until recently his school backpack has been a freebie from the Little Gym with a single strap across the chest. Every time he tried to put it on, he would get one arm through and then look around vainly for the second strap, so finally last week I gave in and bought him a proper backpack, one that he can actually wear on his back.

(3) For the last week or so, Bub has been carrying a Piglet doll everywhere he goes. These intense attachments are few and far between for him, and they always freak me out a little.

Okay, that should do it for background information. Now for my post.

Bub has been in no mood to brook disappointment this week. Ordinary setbacks have plunged him into wails of agony. These aren’t protest cries – in fact they are accompanied by uncharacteristically submissive behaviour. Bub meekly climbs into the car, head down and heels dragging – the only signs of his misery are the ear-splitting howls of despair.

Between the meltdowns and the Piglet obsession, I’ve been worrying about him. When I left nursery school yesterday, Bub was still traumatized by the latest small tragedy (the fact that I had dropped him off instead of his father). The last thing I saw was the teacher lifting his floppy hand in a wave as he dropped down to all fours, refusing to engage and pretending to be a dog. His small yips were a poor substitute for his usual cheery goodbye.

I got all the way to the parking lot before I recalled that these sudden regressions into strange behaviour almost always presage a developmental leap. I wondered what it could be – in what way could the world be opening up to him, presenting him with a new level of understanding? Twenty-four hours later, I think I may have a clue.

Incident #1: Scene: The Little Gym. The class is about to begin when Bub starts looking around. “I need my backpack!” he announces. “I want to show all the kids my – my – from the movie Cars backpack!”

Incident #2: Scene: Front Hall. “I need a new shirt!” Bub declares. Having taken the rather unusual step of selecting his own shirt, a basketball jersey, he is apparently having cold feet. Unfortunately, there is no time for a wardrobe change, so the usual despairing howls follow us out to the car. Finally I relent. There’s a spare shirt in his backpack – we can make the switch when we get to nursery school. Bub’s relief is obvious.

“What’s wrong with your basketball shirt?” I inquire now that he’s calm enough to respond. After taking a moment to collect his thoughts, Bub explains.

“You can’t wear a basketball shirt with dog slippers. That’s silly!”

I suspect that Bub may be making that most dangerous and equivocal of discoveries: the concept of being cool. Cars backpack? Cool. Pairing a basketball jersey with dog slippers? Not so much.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We Could All Use a Little Change

My favourite stories have always been make-overs. Cinderella. The Taming of the Shrew. Trading Spaces.

The best make-overs, of course, are the shy-girl-makes-good kind, like Valancy in The Blue Castle, hurling pot-pourri at the wall and shedding a lifetime of habitual meekness. Even in reverse, though, the process of transformation is exciting, even when the results are kind of disturbing, as they are in Shakespeare's play when Katharina is transformed by Petruchio into a meek and submissive wife. I've always felt that her final speech should be delivered with a certain twinkle in her eye: honouring one's husband is good policy in sixteenth-century Padua - by dropping her shrewish habits, Katharina manages not only to earn the respect of her harshest critics, but also to finally outshine that bitchy sister Bianca, someone who has always known on which side her bread is buttered.

These plays and novels lay out a plausible formula for change: (1) move away from the people whose expectations hold you trapped in the patterns you want to overcome; (2) face your fears; (3) get new clothes.

Nevertheless, in real life I am skeptical - pessimistic, even - about the possibility of change. I'm fond of quoting Agatha Christie's dictum: "The tragedy of life is that people don't change." To that I might add, "except for the worse."

There are exceptions. When addictions or mental illness are suppressing someone's true personality, effective treatment can sometimes allay these problems. Even in the course of ordinary life, people not uncommonly become more confident over time, more capable of matching the outer self to the inner self. But anger, selfishness, arrogance, laziness - these things don't strike me as especially susceptible to the effects of time and effort. We have a set point, I think, from which it's very difficult to improve.

I hold this view more in practice than in theory. Theologically, I am committed to the idea that the power of God can wholly transform a person's life. The problem is that the real-life examples of such transformations are few. So I'm willing to be convinced otherwise. Do you think that people can change?

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Signs I'm Spending Too Much Time Thinking About the New House

  • While watching Juno (the first movie I've seen in an actual theatre since Keira Knightley's Pride and Prejudice) I found myself wanting to examine the counter-tops in Jennifer Garner's kitchen. (Yes, I am aware that her perfect brand-new house symbolizes the literal and figurative sterility of her life, in contrast to the flawed but genuine house where Juno lives amid circa-1986 wall-to-wall floral wallpaper, but that didn't stop me from admiring the way Garner's front door is situated between two well-shaped rooms.)

  • While eating my lunch yesterday, I found myself examining the various shades of yellow in my scrambled eggs. (I decided that a deep yolk yellow would be perfect for the walls of my new kitchen.)

  • While watching Northanger Abbey on PBS's The Complete Jane Austen (an adaptation that reconciles me, somewhat, to the fact that online quizzes always tell me Catherine Morland is the Austen heroine I most resemble), I found myself debating the merits of 9-foot ceilings on the main floor.

I feel like I've turned into a cartoon-character, but instead of having dollar-signs bulging out of my eyes I've got floor plans, paint chips, and counter tops.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Morning Paper

Is your newspaper this ridiculous?

Item 1: In response to Ontario's recently-declared "Family Day" scheduled for February 18, an expert on work-life balance explains that government-mandated holidays cannot solve the well-documented problems arising from longer workweeks, shorter vacations, and increased stress. The reason? People don't actually want to spend time with their families. "Just go to any hockey arena and look at how many dads and moms are on their Blackberry when their kid is playing and tell me the government can solve that problem," he urges. Parents pick business meetings over dinner with the kids; they skip vacations and stay at the office until seven, all because they don't actually like their children. (Hence the popular expression, "Thank God it's Monday.") If parents really wanted to be with their families, he claims, the lazy bums could actually WORK at work instead of chit-chatting and web-surfing all day.

Does it comfort you to know that this "work-life expert" is a professor at a well-known business school, responsible for training the business leaders of tomorrow?

Item 2: The House and Home headline reports that the latest trend in wall-paint is shades of grey: stone, graphite, charcoal, and biscuit. "These are not true greys," a designer explains, "they have overtones of brown, inspired by the Iraq war."

Huh?

For design advice that won't make your living-room look like a war-zone, check out Antique Mommy's Inspired Spaces. (In her latest post, she answers all my questions about paint and flooring!)

Edited to add: There's still time to vote in Round 1 of the Canadian Blog Awards. I'm in the Best Family Blog and Best Blogosphere Citizen categories. You can only vote once, so make it count!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Mean Girl

"We have LOTS of candy at OUR house," Pie observes loudly to no one in particular.

We're at the library during the post-Little-Gym rush, and the formerly shy and tongue-tied Pie has suddenly found her voice. "We have Dora at our house," she points out as one of her gym-classmates picks up a video. While the other children innocently rifle through the shelves of DVDs, she watches like a hawk. "We have Franklin at our house too," she adds a moment later. "And LOTS of Elmo." There's a hint of aggressiveness in her voice. I can't tell whether this is a misguided attempt at friendliness, a case of pure bragging, or some more complicated combination of the two.

Pie is a shy girl, but her shyness is qualified by an undercurrent of pure hostility. On Wednesday afternoons, when it's Bub's turn to go to the Little Gym, Pie hangs out with me in the lobby, defending her toys against the advances of joyful one-year-olds. If she brings a toy with her I often suggest that she leave it in the car. "So the babies don't get it?" she asks understandingly, and I shrug. Babies are her natural enemies - they smile engagingly, attempt to initiate a game of peek-a-boo, and Pie fixes them with a steely glare, slithering to my side and saying, "My mommy." Back off, baby.

Five-year-olds are another matter entirely. With the big girls, Pie is willing to barter her toys and abandon her mother, delighted to be included in a game of tag or hide-and-seek. When it's time for the big girls to line up for their class, Pie joins them, leaning her shoulder against the door-frame and looking up at their faces eagerly, one of the crowd.

Her meanness is innocent of subtlety; it is pure hostility, open aggression. She expects nothing less from those she meets. "Those mans are following me," she reports suspiciously when we walk across the hall to the library. When the gym instructor tries to lend a helping hand, Pie glowers menacingly and clutches my leg. Her world is under enemy occupation, peopled by poachers, attackers, and spies disguised as harmless old men and rosy-cheeked babies.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Minding His Manners

How do you teach a kid manners?

"Please" is easy. You just withhold the Shreddies (or chocolate, as the case may be) until it rolls trippingly off the tongue. Even "thank you" is a no-brainer: Bub hates being offered food that is not to his liking, so we just keep shoving it into his face until he relents. ("No!" "No thank you?" "No-o-o!" "No thank you?" "No, thanks." "That's better.") Twenty years from now, his guests will probably curse our memory as they choke down the soy hot dogs Bub has forced on them, refusing to take no for an answer, but at least he'll always express suitable gratitude for his breakfast cereal.

I like to think that my children have good manners. If an old man holds the door open for us at the mall, Bub says, "Thanks!" in a fervent tone that I invariably find utterly charming. Of course, my assessment is made from a position that is not only biased but also hopelessly naive. I read a post recently (who wrote it? Was it you?) about the importance of teaching children to say "thank you" instead of "thanks." There was a whole code outlining which situations warrant the full "thank you" treatment and which ones can be met with an off-hand "thanks." It was an eye-opener for me, that post - before I read it I had no idea that there was a meaningful difference between the two expressions.

I err on the side of rudeness myself, I realize. I forget birthdays. I never call. I'm not going to even bring up the issue of thank-you cards. Clearly, leading by example is not an option if I want to turn my children into Emily Post's pet pupils.

Luckily, manners are a top priority at Bub's nursery school. Along with turn-taking, sharing, and participation in class routines, the curriculum emphasizes basic social skills - saying hello, introducing yourself by name, waving goodbye. Bub is capable of doing all these things - when he feels like it. Yesterday, however, when his teacher greeted him by name, he avoided eye contact. "Say hello!" we coached as he shrugged his shoulders nervously and turned to find his name tag and post it on the photo board underneath his picture. That task accomplished, he looked up with a grin and said, "Hi Ruby!"

"He likes to have things on his own terms," Ruby commented after class. His compliance is often purchased with some kind of face-saving concession - something that allows him to believe that he's in charge. I'm not sure, myself, whether that's a good or a bad thing. The key to most adult negotiations is to provide some kind of concession (however inconsequential) that allows the opponent to believe he's won. Is it possible to teach children simply to obey, without protest, resistance, or bargaining? Is it desirable to do that, even if it's possible?

"I know you want to pick your battles," Ruby went on sympathetically, "but this one is important." I nodded as best I could while hoisting Bub's backpack with one hand and tugging him back from the door with the other. It is, of course, important to acknowledge people's greetings. It's mandatory, actually. If I simply disregard a friendly hello because I have other things to do, my social relationships will suffer. So this is a worthwhile skill - and even if it's one most children learn without disciplinary intervention, that may not hold true for Bub. So I tried to follow Ruby's advice.

"What did you do at nursery school this morning?" I asked as we walked to the car. "Who did you play with?" This is not a new question - it's part of our ritual recap of the morning, and usually Bub answers with a familiar litany of children's names. Today, though, he ignored me, so I tried again in the car. No response. By the time we got to day-care I was in a dilemma. Do I insist that he answer my question? Or do I simply disregard his rudeness, leading him to believe that his responses are purely optional? I got out of the car and opened his door, giving him one more chance: "Who did you play with at nursery school?" I demanded in a now-I-mean-business tone of voice. Suffice it to say that after a five-minute stand-off in below-freezing temperatures, I decisively lost this particular battle of the wills and retired in defeat, none the wiser.

I know that there is an enabling role often played by well-meaning parents of children on the autistic spectrum. We understand our children and compensate for their deficits; we let them get away with things that simply won't work with their peers. Instead of being a safe place where our children can learn what works and what doesn't, we reinforce false ideas of how social reciprocity functions.

But the thing is, I don't want Bub to tell me who he played with at nursery school because he has learned that responding to my questions is obligatory. There are moments when his stories tumble out of him eagerly, voluntarily, when he glimpses the real rewards of sharing experiences. There are times when he sees a new boy and marches right up and says, "Hi, I'm Bub!" I want his learning to be organic and true, based on the sheer joy of communication.

There are plenty of polite expressions that can be rattled off by rote. Excuse me, sorry, thanks for the ride, don't worry about it, if you wouldn't mind, come again, it was nothing. It is a besetting sin of mine that I place too little value on these rituals of courtesy. But I must confess that any number of ignored questions and omitted greetings are outweighed for me by the unmistakable ring of sincerity in Bub's voice when he says a heartfelt "Thanks!"

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Three Old Houses and a New

House #1: Beautifully decorated, this well-kept limestone house was built in 1865. It boasts a large back yard, spacious rooms with deep windowsills and a modern eat-in kitchen overlooking the patio and gardens. You'll be surprised by the amount of closet space! Just keep in mind that you can't actually afford a house like this, and don't breathe too deeply in the basement family room (they say that mould can be toxic).

House #2: This old house is for the home-owner who prefers charm to convenience. Simply touring the house is an adventure as you discover unexpected cupboards and nooks everywhere you go. Solid as a rock, this house has retained its Victorian identity to the full, located steps from downtown and schools. Make sure you tour in the winter so that you can enjoy the comfort of the hot-water radiators without noticing that most of the windows don't open (and those that do cannot be screened).

House #3: Located right next door to House #2, this house has everything House #2 does not: forced air heat (easy to add air conditioning!), a modern kitchen with dishwasher, motivated sellers who will be willing to accept any reasonable offer. It's also half the size. Walk through the tastefully decorated rooms and try to imagine how much of your stuff you might get rid of so that you can actually live here! Just don't bump your head on the ceiling in the attic master bedroom.

House-hunting has been fun, but I think the scales started to tip when I found a floor plan with the perfect layout and started mentally flipping through paint chips for each room. With the new house, we know exactly what we want: a reasonably priced pie-shaped lot overlooking farmland, not far from the heritage railway station; a builder who seems honest and trustworthy; a floor plan with all the features we want (a master bedroom facing the back yard, a desk in the kitchen, a dining room connected directly to the kitchen, a laundry/mudroom off the garage, not too big and not too small...). We called our real estate agent on Saturday and found out last night that the lot is ours.

I feel light and airy with the relief of having made a decision. The floor-plan we've chosen felt like home as soon as I saw it. But I do feel that buying the old house would have made for a better post: it would have dovetailed so nicely with my self-mythologization as an old-fashioned girl embracing small-town life. How bizarre that I've made a decision about home ownership without making my blog the first priority! Am I losing my touch?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Folding Laundry

Originally, I thought I would have four children. That was in grade eleven – I even named them: Katie Bronwyn, Jordan Andrew, Joel ??, and Sarah Anne. (Poor Joel, the neglected middle child – I can’t even remember his middle name.) The names were selected to be compatible with the last name of my enduring high-school crush (as I recall, my friends found it appalling that I didn't give him input on the names, but I felt that my high-handedness was justified by the fact that I never actually interacted with him).

My four-child plan was challenged by a part-time job I took on that year as floor-mopper, grocery-shopper and general handyperson to one of the women from my church. After having her second child, this woman had been warned by her doctor not to have any more, but she hadn’t listened. Her third child was born, an impish cherub who resembled an infant Stefan Edberg, and her insides fell out. (That, at least, is how her health problems were explained to me. I assume that she had a prolapsed uterus.) Unable to do much heavy lifting around the house, she hired me as a baby-sitter/Molly Maid.

My favourite task was grocery shopping. I drove the family’s wide green sedan to the store (parking brake on all the way, until I found out where the release was located) and spent an enjoyable half hour cruising the aisles. Less pleasurable, I found, was the task of folding laundry. This woman washed her bedsheets a truly unreasonable number of times per week, but bedsheets were nothing compared to those interminable loads of tiny t-shirts and overalls. A basket of adult laundry might take ten minutes to fold, but the children’s clothes seemed to take hours. It was mind-numbing work, and I resolved many times as I did it that I would never have more than two children – after a third, there were simply too many clothes.

I thought of that tonight as I folded up striped leggings and Shrek underwear. I have always derived a certain pleasure from folding my children’s clothes and putting them away. With their wardrobes freshly replenished, my children will go to Sunday School tomorrow decked out in their handsomest garb - I put aside a navy-and-brown striped sweater for Bub, but decided to leave the choice of dress to Pie's best judgment (a decision born of experience). As I folded the Pie’s “I Love to Play” shirt I recalled with a smile how she has insisted on wearing nothing but green this week; as I put away Bub’s Curious George pyjamas I wondered why he so vehemently rejects his new Diego jammies, returning fondly each night to his old standbys of Curious George and Spiderman. As I worked, I could hear them playing downstairs (hubby was holding the fort): they were shouting in unison at the top of their lungs, “Five, four, three, two, one - blast off!” I couldn't help but think of how pure and sweet my love for them is when they’re a few rooms away, under someone else’s supervision.

I’m not ready to revise my “two is enough” policy (poor Joel ?? will remain nothing more than a twinkle in my sixteen-year-old eye). I am struck, though, by how different parenthood is from what I anticipated – how much harder, yes, but also how illuminated by these particular children of mine – the Bub who hides under the collar of his sweater when he’s shy, the Pie who so passionately insists on flowered green pants to match her green shirt.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Eeyore's Lament

My mouth, when at rest, settles into a scowl. I poke around my brain, feeling for post ideas, and come up empty. Where the posts used to live is now a general malaise, a whiny chorus of "Ouch, my throat hurts, why do I always have a cold?" and "It's so unfair, how come I always have to drop the kids off at nursery school and day-care, why is that automatically my job?" I think in comma splices, too lazy to punctuate my thoughts properly.

It's a rainy January, the thin rays of sun no longer amplified by blazing white snow. I pop Starburst candies constantly, Santa's leftovers, hoping for a lemon- or cherry-flavoured boost to my mood. Each time, it almost works.

Bub tugs on my hand excitedly, pulling me towards the Little Gym, his first class of the year. For once we're not running late - we're even in time for the new instructor to introduce herself. Bub stiffens, shrinks, pulls his shirt up over his face, too shy to do anything but lurk on the sidelines while the other children do somersaults and pullovers.

Pie wakes up at 4:45. "Hi Mama!" she chirps with an audible smile. It's not morning, I tell her. You have to go back to sleep. There's a thump as her head hits the mattress; all is silent as she obediently returns to sleep.

"What is the purpose of the Walton narrative?" I ask my first-year students. They clutch their copies of Frankenstein, avoiding my gaze. I let the silence lengthen a bit, hoping for a face-saving response that doesn't come, then sigh and answer my own question, ad nauseum, for forty more minutes.

Pie is on the potty when I arrive at the day-care, dropping off Bub after nursery school. I hear a panicked wail - she's worried she'll miss me, forgo her chance for a hug and a kiss. Carol goes to fetch her and she stumbles out of the washroom, tear-stained and heaving with suppressed sobs. The weight of her curly head on my shoulder is like a sad, pale beam of January sun.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Alohomora

Pie has awakened from her nap. “Stop!” she calls out through the monitor. I can hear a murmur from the living room – hubby and Bub are playing Super Mario Galaxy. “I – said – stop!” Pie hollers. “I’m sleeping right now!” She experiments with emphasis and tone, testing the ability of her words to float out into the house and control its inhabitants. The results are less than satisfactory – after a moment or two she drops her commands of “Stop!” and begins chattering contentedly to her stuffed animals.

To a two-year-old, language is all about doing. Words are not primarily vehicles for information – they are incantations, uttered to produce effects. When Pie asks for ice cream at breakfast, the ensuing tantrum arises not only from the failure of her words to achieve the desired result but also from the sheer power of my own speech act in response. “Mama said no!” she sobs brokenheartedly, assailed by the immovability of my words.

This is something the makers of Dora the Explorer seem to understand. In the Doraverse, words have the power to summon maps and backpacks. When told “No swiping!” Swiper always obeys – no physical menace is ever necessary. In Dora’s pirate adventure, for instance, a costume chest is stolen by pirate piggies who mistakenly think it’s full of treasure. After sailing across the seven seas, Dora locates the chest on Treasure Island – but the piggies won’t give it back. This, I can’t help feeling, would be a prime opportunity to employ reason and argumentation: the chest contains costumes Dora needs for her pirate play, objects the piggies have no use for (they are already clad in handsome pirate garb). But Dora does not pursue this option: instead of opening the chest or negotiating for its return she implores viewers to join her in chanting, “Give us back our treasure!” This incantation mesmerizes the pirate piggies and restores the chest to its rightful owners.

When as a graduate student I first encountered speech-act theory it struck me as a special case, a fascinating glimpse into that subset of words and phrases that do not merely denote but actually create things in the real world. “I promise.” “You’re fired.” “Let there be light.” Living with toddlers has taught me otherwise. Speech acts are the foundation of language; description is merely the distracting superstructure we build upon our earliest utterances of “More!” “Stop!” and “Backpack!”

Bub’s process of language acquisition served, perhaps unexpectedly, to highlight this principle. He did not perform speech acts: he labeled things, accumulating a vocabulary of nearly a hundred words without triggering the language explosion that normally occurs when the child reaches a critical mass of fifty words. Bub was a matchmaker: he took pleasure in the correspondence of words to things. Words did not combine for him; they did not go out into the world and change things. Most of the interventions we learned in speech therapy involved coaxing that penny to drop, creating opportunities for Bub to discover the uncanny power of words to alter reality.

Pie hungers for that power in a way her brother does not. She is a virtuoso of the speech-act; her repertoire includes whining, begging, scolding, coaxing, teasing, and demanding. While her brother keeps his foot on his native soil, the indicative, she inhabits the imperative and interrogative. Raising Bub has left me shockingly ill-prepared for her verbal onslaught: I find myself constantly fighting that moment of passive acquiescence. “Oh, you want it! I didn’t realize!” Like the pirate piggies or Swiper, I’m easily hypnotized but the unexpected power of this little girl’s words.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Gratitude, Belatedly

After my diary-diving expedition for my last post, I’ve been poking around a bit in my paper archive, the hope chest full of spiral-bound notebooks and duotangs collaged with clippings from Seventeen magazine. One treasure I hadn’t peeked into for years is my log book from grade 10 Theatre Arts. I was required to keep this journal for school – it was read and evaluated by my teacher – but perhaps for that reason it preserves a somewhat less carefully constructed version of myself than the heavily introspective private diaries I was keeping at the same time.

When I think of high school, what I remember is the suffering. My log book is littered with reminders of that: my voice is chirpy and enthusiastic, but each gap in my entries is explained as the result of being too depressed to write. I describe the antics of my extraverted, charismatic theatre-arts cohorts – and then describe myself sitting on a roster block, painfully inhibited and unable to take part. There are many indications of friendliness and acceptance from my peers, but these gestures were powerless to penetrate my armour of self-conscious shyness.

I felt vaguely sad after reading that log book – and amazed at how many experiences have left no imprint at all on my memory: try as I might, I can find no recollection of the Twelve Days of Christmas sketch we performed for the Christmas auditorium. Other things I do remember: a pizza parlour game on theatre sports day, an exercise in walking blindfolded around the auditorium, singing my name in opera-style to a round of applause from my peers.

Perhaps the most surprising feeling was gratitude to my teacher, Mr. Rimbault. I’ve written about him before – he’s the man who taught me the words “gregarious” and “lugubrious” (also, I discovered in my log book, “inebriated”). But I was struck this time by how carefully constructed the course was: how clearly the purpose of each exercise was communicated and how stimulating and creative the activities were. The first few weeks of class were filled with boring lectures designed to restrain the energies of the kind of student most often attracted to drama courses – the hand-out at the front of the notebook emphasized that “Theatre Arts class is not a recreational break from your other academic activities: it is itself an academic discipline that requires intelligence, concentration, commitment and hard work.” Such cautionary messages were hardly necessary in my case: in the log book I describe my strategy for getting a part in the school play – I planned to make up in punctuality and dedication what I lacked in talent, working my way up from a walk-on to, later on, a speaking role.

As a long-term plan it worked remarkably well: I lurked shyly at the borders of the drama-geek club in grade 10, showing up reliably to rehearsals as a “Person of the Town” in that year’s Our Town production. By grade 12 I had achieved a headline role in Nicholas Nickleby as Madeleine, Nicholas’s “heart’s desire” (a role I won almost entirely on my ability to shed tears on cue). I enjoyed my Theatre Arts classes; I loved being in the plays and appreciated Mr. Rimbault for his quirkiness and vast vocabulary.

It never occurred to me at the time to be grateful. I knew which teachers I liked and disliked, which ones I respected and despised. I certainly appreciated the countless hours Mr. Maurice dedicated to directing our annual productions. Perhaps it is on behalf of my own children that I feel so grateful now for the intelligence and care he brought to his job. We plan to bite the bullet this September and send Bub to kindergarten, crossing our fingers and hoping that he will encounter teachers as open-minded and dedicated as the ones I took so wholly for granted when I was in school.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Dream Home

It’s hard to blog when you’re spending all your time compulsively checking the MLS listings and scanning online floor plans. So I pulled out my grade ten diary and discovered that 21 years ago I was spending most of my time having sleepovers with my friends and planning out my dream home. Here are some excerpts from January 1987:

New Year’s Resolutions:
I, [Bubandpie], resolve on this day, January 1st, 1987, to:
1) Write a story I can be proud of – and hopefully send away.
2) Stop hating people (eg. preppies, snobby Lambeth people).
3) Have more empathy for others.

*****

BFF slept over Saturday night and we talked about:

1) The guys we would go out with – and how much we wanted to go out with them.
2) Going to France for grade thirteen [still three years away, a plan that never materialized].
3) Florida – we’re staying at Disney World for March Break.
4) Social People Scales – the Lambeth SPS, the Byron and Westmount SPS’s, the theatre arts SPS etc. The thing is that everyone is climbing. Shannon, for instance, is dictator of the Lambeth SPS, and Lisa, Patty, Stephanie, and even Carolyn, BFF and I to a lesser (much lesser) extent are all struggling to pull ourselves into her little circle. But Shannon herself is about midway up the Westmount and Byron preppy clique, and struggling to climb that particular ladder. Even the people who are at the top are as anxious as anyone, perhaps more so, because their whole life is built on their social position.

So that’s what we talked about from 8 pm until 2 am. It was a good sleepover.

*****

On New Year’s Eve, Andrea slept over and we planned each other’s futures by saying what we’d be doing five and ten years from now on New Year’s Eve. Andrea’s future is more exciting than mine – she goes to New York and joins a rock band while I get married, become a happy homemaker and raise children. Andrea says she wants her house to be decorated all in white and silver, with pink furniture if necessary, the only spots of colour being large, abstract prints in silver frames – only she doesn’t want a house, she wants a two-story apartment. And three cats. The cats are the only things that humanize it – I wonder if they have to be white as well.

*****

BFF and I decided that it would be worthwhile to go out with someone we only like in order to have a boyfriend. I wouldn’t advise extending that philosophy into marriage though.

*****

Felicia and I planned out our dream homes tonight. They are less dreamy than they might be, in that we’ve stuck to the plain and ordinary with a few innovations (attic bedrooms, several fireplaces, a nursery), but I like it better that way.

First floor:
Kitchen – blue and yellow
Dining room – red with dark wood
Family room – orange and teal green (fireplace)


Living room – rose and grey (fireplace)


Second floor:
Master bedroom – peach and cream (fireplace)


2 children’s bedrooms – pink / white, red, blue
Nursery – yellow and white


Basement:
Rec room – red with dark wood
2 studies

As I recall, the exterior of this house looked almost exactly like this:


It's a good thing I was sticking to the "plain and ordinary," don't you think?