Let's say you were building a house that looked something like this:
Where would you put your piano?
The physically possible options are these:
1) In the corner beside the fireplace. Will look somewhat wedged in and be subject to damage from temperature variations.
2) Directly beside the fireplace on the other side. Same objections as above.
3) Centered on the long wall between the living room and dining room. May look bizarre because it is straddling the two rooms.
4) On the wall opposite the front door. It will fit here but with only a couple of inches to spare.
5) In the dining room. Piano and bench jut out about three feet from the wall, so that would make it functionally impossible to put a table in there (though the room could be converted into a kind of den, with a desk and bookshelves occupying the rest of the space).
Friday, February 29, 2008
Let's say you were building a house that looked something like this:
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Toy Story has entered into an almost daily rotation around here lately, a schedule that has afforded me ample opportunity to observe its central conflict between Woody, the ironic postmodern cowboy, and Buzz Lightyear, the blazingly pre-ironic astronaut. Woody is genial and sincerely devoted to Andy, his little-boy owner, but there is a certain detachment to his performance: when Andy enters the room, Woody freezes, assuming a convincingly inanimate posture, but he knows, deep down, that he's no cowboy. That's a reality Buzz Lightyear refuses to acknowledge: even when he sees an army of his clones on a television commercial (all labeled with the ominous words, "Not a Flying Toy"), he clings to the belief that he is a space ranger in search of a ship, someone whose life has cosmic meaning.
Equally deluded are the three-eyed aliens at Pizza Planet, trapped inside a coin-op machine and subject to the whims of the giant claw that plucks them unpredictably from their cozy home. "You have been chosen," they chant robotically when Woody tries to tug Buzz away from the claw's reach. "Stop it you zealots!" Woody responds, his words a not-so-subtle reminder of the religious conviction underlying the aliens' superstitious world view.
Woody is an atheist surrounded by believers, toys who lack his experience, his mobility, or simply his interpretive framework. Buzz, like the aliens, is earnestly committed to a belief system that the viewer recognizes as appealing but false. There is no being; there is only performing.
Lionel Shriver addresses similar ideas in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her narrator, Eva Katchadourian, identifies irony as "an undercurrent of snideness, a distancing in all those fifties diners with chrome stools and oversized root-beer floats." Irony is the art of having it both ways: of pushing away with one hand what we grasp with the other. "We had friends whose apartments were completely tricked out in sardonic kitsch," Eva writes, "- pickaninny dolls, framed advertisements for Kellogg's cornflakes from the twenties ('Look at the bowlfuls go!') - who owned nothing that wasn't a joke."
Irony isn't really something you can choose to cast off. It's more like Lasik eye surgery, purportedly revealing the world as it really is, but leaving you with a bit of a headache and sketchy night vision. Most of us, of course, don't even want to cast it off - we enjoy irony's heady cocktail of self-deprecation and smugness. And the only available alternative right now, in the U.S. especially, is a black-and-white dualism that would be less dangerous if it were more consciously cynical.
At church on Sunday the pastor thanked God for allowing us to "approach the throne of grace." Something about that old-fashioned turn of phrase, uttered in his thick Scottish burr, gave me a sudden glimpse of families huddled at the fire, clutching bowls of gruel in hands hardened by lye soap. For them, the throne of grace was as real and important as the rain on which they depended for food or the moon which provided the only light in their unpolluted sky. Compared to theirs, my faith is weak: it can be assailed by something as trivial as the sudden suspicion that God must be as annoyed as I am by the unfortunate predilection of His people for alliterative catch-phrases. It's not that my eyes have been opened by knowledge: rather, I've been blinded by science, dazzled by the technologies that block out my view of the stars.
Monday, February 25, 2008
I'm mopping my floors today to the tune of Billboard's Top Ten Hits of 1983 and feeling splendidly nostalgic for a year that I spent desperately longing for something - anything - to happen.
That's what I loved about the movie My American Cousin. By the time it came out I was older - seventeen, I think - and still waiting for something to happen to me, so I felt an immediate jolt of recognition when the 12-year-old heroine flopped down on her bed, opened her diary and wrote "Nothing Ever Happens" in big ballpoint letters.
It starts at age twelve, I think, that restless, bone-deep boredom, when suddenly the back of your parents' car feels too small and the teenage world of romance and adventure is frustratingly out of reach. That, at least, is what comes to mind when I belt out the lyrics to this song:
Everytime I see you, well the rays of the sun are all
Streaming through the waves in your hair
And every star in the sky is taking aim at your eyes
Like a spotlight
The beating of my heart is a drum and it’s lost
And it’s looking for a rhythm like you
You can take the darkness from the deep of the night
And turn it to a beacon burning endlessly bright
I gotta follow it ‘cause everything I know
Well, it’s nothing ‘till I give it to you.
(Most of the lyrics, anyway: really, I sing "immature eyes" and "babe you know my heart is a drum" and then hum incoherently when I should be singing "beacon burning endlessly bright.") Giddy with the freedom of a spring break that I'll spend marking papers, renewing my licence plates, and signing the offer on our new house, I'm finding a certain pleasure in remembering that old ache of boredom, the helpless longing I felt as I slumped on plastic chairs at many a grade-seven lunchtime dance, hoping for life to find me.
Friday, February 22, 2008
Step One: Read The Einstein Syndrome and learn that your son's chances of becoming a scientific genius increase with every diaper-clad month that goes by. Pat yourself on the back for your instinctive grasp of the value of postponing potty training until close to the fourth birthday.
Step Two: Buy a potty. Fanfare!
Step Three: Teach your son to sit for hours watching TV on the potty, thereby ensuring by sheer law of randomness that at some point he'll actually go. Fanfare!
Step Four: Try to look proud and supportive when the Bub shouts ecstatically, "I peed! Hooray!" pointing at the puddle on the floor.
Step Five: Decide after two months that the benefits of occasional pee in the potty are outweighed by the hours and hours of TV required to achieve this. Postpone potty training until Christmas.
Step Six: Buy Shrek underwear. Note with satisfaction that accidents are now accompanied by wails of "Oh no! This is terrible!"
Step Seven: Celebrate progress: the pee is hitting the potty on average once a day - then twice a day. Finally, we're making it through most days on a single dry pull-up. Switch to underwear, even for car rides and nursery school.
Step Eight: Put Bub to bed in a diaper, only to hear him screaming two hours later. Is it a night terror? Investigate to find him clutching his crotch and wailing, "I don't want to! I don't want to!" Provide potty and share a sigh of intense relief as it fills almost to the brim. Make a mental note to ensure that you provide an opportunity to sit on the potty before bedtime.
Step Nine: Declare mission accomplished? Bub still does not ask for the potty when he has to go, nor does he respond truthfully to questions about his need for the potty, but thanks to his camel-like powers of bladder control, he's making it through most days with dry underwear. At age 4 and a quarter, that's not bad.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
I've always been a bit of a deal-maker. This was a bone of contention between me and my ex-husband. The argument would usually go like this:
Me: Could you unpack those boxes of stuff in the corner of the bedroom?
X: Sure. In a minute.
Me: Okay, I'll make you a deal - I'll unpack the boxes if you organize the stuff and put it away.
X: Sure. (not looking up from his latest version of King's Quest) I'll be right there as soon as I get to a point where I can save the game.
Me: (fuming as I trip over the stacks of stuff piled up along the bedroom floor)
Me: Why haven't you put away that stuff? I thought we had a deal.
X: That's the problem with our marriage - everything is a deal to you. It's like you're weighing and measuring everything all the time.
This line of reasoning, which now seems to me transparently self-serving, carried a certain weight with me at the time. I responded by blaming my father. He was the one who had raised me to solve most conflicts by making deals. Clearly this had warped my personality, made me incapable of living freely and naturally with another person.
I hear the echo of my father's voice a lot these days. Pie, in particular, is instantly calmed by the offer of a deal. I'll go fetch her kitty if she takes off her pyjamas. She'll get into her carseat if I promise to play the Shrek soundtrack. Deal-making offers children a (mostly illusory) sense of control; it is the opposite of the usual dictatorship, the tyranny of parenthood whereby they never get what they want, always do what they're told, and submit to the various forced humiliations of toddlerhood, like bathtime, breakfast, or bed.
As a childrearing technique, deal-making is undeniably effective. Parent-child relationships are not unusual in this respect, though - I think that almost all social relationships are characterized by a mostly unspoken sense of quid pro quo. Sometimes the deal must be verbalized to be binding, and our culture has developed rituals surrounding the most significant social deals - becoming engaged, breaking up. There may not be any strictly contractual or legal aspect to these events, but we still feel the need to mark them with some exchange of tangible goods: we give and receive rings, return sad boxes full of toothbrushes and spare t-shirts.
The vast majority of these social contracts are determined not by individual choice but rather by social expectation. One can negotiate alternatives to the prevailing social code, but as individuals we have little control over which deals can be safely taken for granted and which must be painstakingly negotiated. Many social codes that were universally acknowledged in the past have now become obsolete, while others have sprung up their place. Andrea's post yesterday drew attention, for instance, to the implicit (and historically recent) expectation that any dating relationship is exclusive unless otherwise specified. Fifty years ago, a guy had to give his girl his frat pin in exchange for exclusivity; now even a first date often carries with it an expectation that other dating opportunities will be postponed until this relationship has had a chance to pan out.
Tipping is another complex and evolving social code that is rarely articulated directly but remains subtly binding. I found out last night, to my shock, that as many as half of homeowners leave their mail carriers a tip at Christmas. I had no idea - for nearly five years I have been ignorantly reaping the benefits of prompt mail service without fulfilling my side of the unspoken bargain. I have sipped wine, gobbled chocolates, and cashed in gift certificates, never reflecting that perhaps some of this bounty ought to be shared with my faithful frozen mail carrier.
If I controlled the universe, tipping would be eradicated: employees would be paid a fair wage that allows me to escape the embarrassment of having to fumble with loonies and toonies, a shabby princess scattering her paltry largesse. But the universe remains stubbornly outside of my personal control, and so I slide my small bills across the salon counter, muttering "This is for Carol," as I sidle out the door.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
I still haven't quite gotten used to it, how hard it is being a grown-up.
I'm not thinking right now about the truly hard things, the anger, the sleep-deprivation, the jettisoning of small dreams. I'm thinking of things like arranging pre-approved mortgages and remembering to take your car in for emissions testing so you can renew your licence plates - the sheer dizzying amount of knowledge required to do something as commonplace as buying a house or changing an address. I feel weighted down by knowledge today, my mind crowded full of uninteresting facts: ceramic floors are hard underfoot but don't contain PVCs; proof of insurance must be kept in the glove box of the car; vaccination records must be presented upon registration in kindergarten; furnace filters ought to be cleaned at least once a year.
Underneath all these petty tasks, these bits of modern life, is a soft thrum of remembrance today for a friend who is undergoing her first miscarriage, that rite of passage no one tells you about, that almost universal step on the road of motherhood.
The novel I'm teaching this week includes this poem, written by the fictional Mary Swann:
Blood pronounces my name
Blisters the day with shame
Spends what little I own
Robbing the hour, rubbing the bone.
Characters in the novel project onto this cryptic verse their own preoccupations and needs: biographer Morton Jimroy considers the poem "a pretty direct reference to the sacrament of holy communion"; Sarah Maloney (Ph.D.) reads it as a testament to the power of familial ties; country spinster Rose Hindmarch is pretty sure it's about menstruation. Following their example, I read those lines and recall the losses so many of us have known, marked by the blood we refer to so politely as "spotting." I look out at the sea of undergraduate faces in my classroom and recognize how meaningless that interpretation is to them. They are eighteen, nineteen years old, still in that precarious, giddy stage where babies are a given, a disaster that must be kept at bay by careful birth control, a world where babies are crowding at the portal just waiting for a single slip-up to rush into existence.
Monday, February 18, 2008
"How did Ginny get like this?" Harry asks Voldemort when he finds her cold, pale, and unconscious in the Chamber of Secrets.
"Well, that's an interesting question," said Riddle pleasantly. "And quite a long story. I suppose the real reason Ginny Weasley's like this is because she opened her heart and spilled all her secrets to an invisible stranger."
Not just a stranger - a diary - a magical diary that not only receives all your "pitiful worries and woes" but actually answers back.
Should I be concerned that the first symptom of possession by Voldemort is losing time?
Friday, February 15, 2008
I ran out to the convenience store last night to pick up some sour cream, and when I pulled up I saw a car idling, a woman at the wheel. Her son was in the store, buying a litre of milk, and I was struck by the sheer improbability of it, the idea that these helpless babes of mine will develop, in a few short years, into creatures I could send out for a stick of butter with some hope that they'd return home safely, butter in hand. There will come a time, I realized, when I can take my children to the mall and even stop for a chocolate-caramel latte without turning around to see them walking hand-in-hand into the glass elevator, the doors shutting behind them. And I won't have to abandon my latte and sprint over just in time to make eye contact with the Pie as the elevator goes up, and then stand there helplessly while her mouth opens in a silent scream of despair. And I won't punch the button repeatedly only to get up to the second floor and find an empty hall and eerie silence, finally locating my children at the other end of the mall, riding down the escalator with my sister (who was smart enough to take the stairs instead of waiting ineffectually for the elevator). And I won't spring down the escalator to shouts of "It's Mama!" and "You're not invisible anymore!" or step off at the bottom to be enveloped by hugs and earnest explanations of, "We went in the alligator and it was really SCARY."
A few short years from now, it won't be like that at all.
Thursday, February 14, 2008
Mister Jeff stopped me with a concerned expression. "The children aren't allowed to wear Toronto Maple Leaf logos in the gym," he explained apologetically. I panicked. Was it a conflict with the Disney sponsorship? A violation of the gym policy code I had never read very carefully? "Do you have something else he could wear - a Montreal Canadiens shirt, perhaps?"
I shook my head, now thoroughly alarmed. "I don't have any other shirts with me right now!"
Finally he relented, cracking a smile. "I'm just pulling your leg."
I am an idiot.
Bub radiates happiness this week. His voice is louder than usual, his expression more animated. "I have a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt!" he tells Mister Jeff proudly. It has a hood; it's just like the one Rory wears at nursery school; it's just like the one in The Hockey Sweater (a story that Bub has not, perhaps, thoroughly understood).
His world has expanded. It includes friendly faces everywhere, random strangers to whom he can show his Bee Movie valentines, his Danger Ranger videos, his hoods and sweaters and backpacks. He approaches these encounters with the brash confidence of a true amateur, shouting just a bit too loudly, as if he were at a pie social at the nursing home. More than once, his intended target has simply failed to observe his friendly attempts at conversation. If someone standing a foot away shouts, "Hey guy! It's a Cars backpack!" one can be pardoned for assuming that the child is directing his messages at someone else - someone much farther away, perhaps, or clinically hard of hearing.
He has better success at nursery school. "I said hello to that guy!" Bub announced jubilantly yesterday, gesturing toward a little girl in a red Valentine's dress. He knows that I will be proud, knows that adults set great store by these odd rituals of social interaction. As I gather up his boots and coat, I see him pointing to her bejeweled Crocs, looking up at her face and uttering what clearly appears to be a compliment. She's too young to notice a certain oddness in the way he bends down and looks upward to establish eye contact; she smiles, says something I can't hear with an open, friendly expression.
"I can wear the Crocs tomorrow," Bub announces as we drive away. "Boys don't like to wear Crocs. 'Yes we do!' all the boys said. Boys like to wear Crocs too!" With his dawning awareness of the social world, Bub is in the best, happiest place - he has discovered the joy of social interaction, but not yet the sting of social rejection. Riding the tide of his burgeoning confidence, I can almost forget to be afraid.
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
Tuesday, February 12, 2008
We both knew, instantly, that I had crossed the line.
Her eyes wide with shock, Pie clutched her arm and backed out of the room, yelling through her tears, "I hurt my arm! Mama hit me!"
I suppressed nervous giggles as I heard her father backing me up. "Were you doing what you were told?" he asked sternly. In response, Pie stomped away, pulling her knees to her chest as she crouched in a corner of her bedroom, back to the wall. When I attempted to follow she held her hand up in the signal for "stop." "Don't look at me," she barked. "You stay away from me."
I shifted uneasily from one emotion to another. Laughter, tinged with hysteria, at her tragically stern expression. Hot bursts of shame. Simple surprise at how quickly anger can travel along my arm and through my hand. Admiration for the Pie's sure sense of self, her blazing certainty that what I had done was wrong.
In the end, it was me she turned to, as she has turned to me insistently, demandingly, throughout this difficult week. Sending her innocent father from the room, she fell into my arms, sobbing, her need for me trumping her righteous indignation. "I'm sorry I hit you," I murmured into her downy curls. "Do you forgive me?"
She gave the slightest of nods, burying her head still further into my shoulder. I thought about how her forgiveness preceded mine, how my stubborn heart refuses to apologize - even to a two-year-old - until the other side has caved. Words hovered on my lips as I tried to figure out how to address her behaviour without holding her responsible for my anger. Finally I decided on a simple question. "When I tell you to do something, Pie, do you think you can do what I say?"
Pie thought this over carefully. "No."
I tried again. "When I say, 'Stop that!' should you keep doing it, or should you stop?"
"Pie, you're a little girl, and you need to do what you're told. Now, when I tell you to do something, will you obey?"
More quickly, now, her firm decision. "No."
We cuddled on the bed for a bit, until Pie found a Ricola lozenge on my bedside table. "Is this yours?" she asked.
I nodded. "Why don't we practice," I suggested. "I'll tell you to put it back on the table, and you'll obey."
Eyes atwinkle, Pie complied. "Right here?" she asked, replacing the candy where she had found it, her obedience a free gift, offered just this once to make me feel better.
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Over Birthday Dinner
Me: ... and I was so mad at the Pie today when she was throwing that tantrum and wouldn't sit still so I could buckle her into the carseat that -
Hubby: (staring with shocked expression) You can't get mad at the children.
Me: Well, I calmed down after a few min - Wait. I can too get mad at the children. What are you talking about? I'm allowed to get mad at the children sometimes. It's not like I yelled at her or anything. My mom says she used to scream at us, and I don't even remember it, so it's not like I was scarred by it.
Hubby: But, but - they're just little children!
After Watching Too Many Danger Ranger Videos
Bub: (shortly after the Pie went down for her nap) Danger Ranger Mama, did you put Danger Ranger Pie into her bed???
Me: Yes, Danger Ranger Bub. Yes, I did.
Tantrum Times Two
My tummy was feeling rumbly Thursday night. We had just watched the latest episode of Lost and were getting ready to watch a taped episode of Survivor from earlier in the evening. I poured myself a bowl of Corn Flakes, reached for the brown sugar, and realized that I had slightly less than a full spoonful. This was a disaster with implications not only for my bedtime snack, but also for my breakfast in the morning. Why had I not put brown sugar on the grocery list when I poured the last of the bag into the plastic container? I kicked myself for the oversight, anticipated tomorrow morning's white-sugar cereal with a sinking feeling, and began to develop a growing suspicion: somehow this must be all hubby's fault.
Then I went to the refrigerator for milk and realized that there was about half a cup left - barely enough for my snack, and nothing for the morning.
Suffice it to say that there was much banging of bowls, some shouts of "That's just great!" and "I guess I just have to starve!", a general throwing of boots and coats, some stomping of feet and banging of doors, and then I was off to the grocery store at ten o'clock at night, the Fans and Favorites still frozen mid-screen, their shelters unbuilt, with no idea of what they were playing for.
I thought of that yesterday when, after being denied hot chocolate at Starbucks and then enduring the further indignity of having an Estee Lauder compact full of eggplant-coloured eye shadow torn from her happy little hands, the Pie howled and stamped in her fury. Her rage animated her whole body; she roared in frustration and screamed "Don't look at me!" when I tried to make eye contact.
"Do you need to make a deal?" I asked. "Will you go back to the crib if I read you a story first?"
She nodded, catching a sob in her throat, relaxing her body against me as we curled up in the chair, cracking just the barest hint of a smile as she filled in the blanks. "If you give a mouse a cookie," I began, "he's going to ask for a glass - of - "
"Milk," she whispered.
Thursday, February 07, 2008
Me: Look at the trees! They're all covered with snow!
Bub: We should get them a towel.
(Who needs aesthetics when you can have empathy and helpfulness?)
Also in the category of "Not The Response I Was Expecting": my summer teaching assignment. It turns out that my annual two months of unemployment/stay-at-home-mom-dom (is it significant that that word rhymes with condom?) will take place in May and June this year rather than July and August. That is to say, I'll be off during the spring and working full-time through the summer. The main implication of this change is that my time at home will overlap with the school year at Bub's nursery school. That solves the problem of arranging pick-up and drop-off times around my teaching schedule, but it also means that instead of spending July and August going back and forth to the park or beach, the children will be in full-time day-care.
On the other hand, the Pie will have me all to herself five mornings a week for the first time in her life. This is the experience of motherhood that I've never had: being on my own with a preschool-age child who is capable of carrying on a conversation. Already, I'm full of giddy visions of the two of us at Starbucks sipping lattes, or shoe-shopping at the mall.
With two children to keep track of, my role is supervisory: I look for vantage points from which I can see both children at once; I settle disputes; I monitor the perimeter and watch for escapees. When I switch from the zone defence to man-to-man coverage, either because one child is napping or because both parents are home, there's a different level of intimacy. For the past few weekends, Bub and I have been able to sneak away on Saturday afternoons to visit model homes while the Pie naps in her father's care. Bub scopes out the bedrooms for stuffed animals and tests the attic for echoes while I examine kitchen cabinetry and admire ceramic tiles. There's a companionableness to these mother-son excursions that I've always loved, but I rarely get the opportunity for similar outings with the Pie.
Thus it is that twenty-four hours after receiving my teaching assignment, I'm already brainstorming ways to branch out beyond my usual route of kid-friendly, self-contained environments like play-groups and toy stores. Any suggestions for fun, adult-friendly outings that a two-year-old would also love?
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
It felt like a jailbreak, the escape from high school into the freedom and anonymity of university. In the darkness of the lecture theatre, no one cared if you were popular. Groups formed, but they were flat and loose, nothing like the rigid hierarchies of high school. (I have often thought that Mr. Darcy's cold reception of Mr. Collins is nothing - nothing at all - compared to the reaction of a high-school Queen Bee to the friendly advances of a bottom-feeder several steps lower than her on the food chain.)
I'd like to think that this shift comes from maturity, that at age twenty, most of us had outgrown the insecurities that drove our high-school alliances. The evidence, though, suggests otherwise: my then-boyfriend attended a small college with fewer than 800 students, and there was no appreciable difference between the social dynamics of his college and those of my high school. Notably, the male-dominated common rooms of that college were at least as treacherous as a high-school girls' locker room. Contrary to popular suspicion, girls have not cornered the market on meanness. Put people into a contained environment, where everyone knows everyone, and they will arrange themselves into hierarchies.
I see this in my English class. Not in the big lecture hall - there, students arrange themselves haphazardly enough - but in my small college class, populated by students in a preparatory program. In September they had only just met, these thirty kids who would move together through the one-year program. By January, though, alliances had hardened. When I divide them into the groups, the same hands always go up in unison: six smart, outspoken boys from the Caribbean, four quiet blonde girls from Southwestern Ontario. The groups are strikingly homogeneous, sorted by gender, nationality, and even hair colour. Like is drawn to like.
I would like to think of these groupings as innocent. It has been fun to watch friendships form, to watch the quiet girl in the front corner forging an alliance with the more outgoing girls from across the room. Seating habits have evolved to reflect the shifting social arrangements of the group - and certain desks have remained in the possession of loners, people who don't fit in anywhere. When Alice realizes that she's been slotted in with Wade and Horace for her group presentation, her face falls. When Horace walks in late, he's greeted with mocking applause.
The flip side of friendship is casual cruelty; the outsiders seem to serve the purpose of defining the groups from which they are excluded.
Adult social relationships, in my experience, take place not in the freedom of the dark lecture theatre nor in the hothouse of the high-school cafeteria. They are in the coffee shop, where friends meet to sip lattes and trade stories of bad bosses and spilled sippy cups. Friendships occur on an appointment-only basis: the woman sitting in an armchair in the corner, her baby sleeping in a bucket by her feet, is separated from the rest of us by the invisible lines imposed by Canadian standards of politeness. Our eyes don't meet; we don't make small-talk. I hope that she has her own friends she can meet for coffee when she needs to. I know that sometimes she doesn't.