Saturday, March 29, 2008

Useless Knowledge

A frustrating by-product of modern life is the constant accumulation of useless knowledge. As soon as we really learn the ropes of something, it's over: we leave, we move on, we encounter something new. Unsolicited advice may function as a kind of safety valve, a release of pressure from our bursting storehouses of hard-won but now obsolete experience. This principle applies to motherhood, certainly; if I had expected to have ten children, I might have found the steep learning curve of new motherhood to be more purposeful, like a high-intensity training camp for the Olympic marathon. But there are many other pockets of no-longer-useful information taking up valuable storage space in my brain, neural synapses that keep on firing long after the need for them has passed. Here are only a few of the once-useful tips that are stored indelibly in my long-term memory:

1986: Teen Missions Boot Camp

  • Bring a backpack. Boot Camp life involves carrying a heavy load on your shoulders all day long - water canteen, notebook, purse, Bible. An even weight distribution across your shoulders will save you from many an aching back.
  • Pack lots of cheap but useful items that you can throw away before leaving for the mission field. The 32-lb weight limit applies only to the gear you take on the plane.
  • Don't put too much effort into conserving the single roll of toilet paper you're given at the beginning of your two-week stay. If you have to spend 50 cents for a second roll, that's a small price to pay for avoiding soak-through in washrooms that don't have running water.

1987: Walt Disney World
  • The best way to get from Fort Wilderness to Epcot Centre is not the most direct: avoid line-ups by taking the bus to one of the hotels and then taking the monorail from there, rather than from the main parking lot.
  • Try the fettuccine alfredo at the Italian restaurant in the World Showcase at Epcot. Yum! (For dessert, head over to the Mexican pavilion for hot, fresh chirros.)

1988: High School
  • Don't switch math classes after the first week in September. You'll end up sitting at the front of the class, surrounded by enemies who think it's funny to mimic you whenever you cough or clear your throat. Eating your peanut-butter sandwich at 11:07 is a small price to pay for the privilege of a free period where you have the whole cafeteria to yourself and a free pass from the Darwinian exercise of normal high-school lunch-eating.
  • If you force yourself to actually talk to the smart drama-club clique members who intimidate you, you'll find that they're not as scary as you think.

1990: First-Year University
  • If you think you've met someone who is just like you - your male counterpart and soul mate - it's not because you have. It's called narcissistic projection.
  • Remember that you don't have to keep telling your mother everything. Some information really is best to keep on a need-to-know basis.

1992: First Wedding (Planning Stage)
  • Floral sailor dresses do not look appropriate on anyone over the age of 22. Yes, that includes only one member of your wedding party, but still. Your future sister-in-law deserves better.
  • While every decision you make regarding your wedding appears to be fraught with symbolic significance, it is not actually the case that allowing your future in-laws to determine the menu will foreshadow a lifetime of stifling control. Remember, you're going to be living two time zones away. It's okay to compromise.
  • When your future husband considers calling off the wedding several months beforehand, that IS a red flag.

1993: Marriage, Apartment, Grad School
  • Yes, that is too many major life changes to be encountering in a single year.
  • An outside window is a desirable feature of apartment living, even in Winnipeg. Although an atrium full of greenery may seem like a decent substitute, what it notably lacks is any kind of breeze. Unless you want to live in a sauna every time you turn on the dishwasher, get an apartment on the outside-facing wing.

1994: Moving House
  • There are many useful products available for sale at U-Haul to make moving easier. One of the best is plastic wrap - it's like a giant wheel of cling wrap that you can wind around small furniture items like bedside tables, keeping everything in the drawers intact.
  • Real packing paper is easier to use than newspaper and leaves fewer newsprint stains on your dishes.

1998: Divorce
  • You don't have enough assets to make expensive legal representation worthwhile. Decide what you want. Ask for it while your ex is still feeling guilty enough to comply. Get a cheap mall lawyer to write it all up.
  • Be grateful for the family and friends who are holding you up, carrying you through. This really is the part where everything gets better.

2000: Second Wedding
  • You are a "bride," even if your mom says you aren't. This is the marriage that will last. Don't feel like you have to act as if it's second best.
  • Yes, it's illegal to climb up on the WWII-era tank for your wedding photos. But kids climb on that tank all summer long, and the photos are going to turn out really well. Don't let mean passers-by ruin your day.

2002: TTC
  • Save yourself time by purchasing a fertility thermometer right off the bat. At least it will save you several months of suspecting that you're pregnant when in fact you're not even ovulating. Get a copy of Taking Charge of Your Fertility and take notes.

2003: Pregnancy, Birth, and Post-Partum
  • Although What to Expect When You're Expecting is evil, there's not much that's better on the market right now. What to Expect the First Year will be useful; so will Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Do not read that copy of Baby Wise your friend loaned you. Do not - I repeat, do not - read anything with the words "attachment" or "Dr. Sears" on the cover. Dr. Jack Newman's guide to breastfeeding is a useful reference, but it is not a book you should be reading cover to cover. When you get the blocked milk ducts, then it will be time enough to look up the problem in the index. (The solution, by the way, is hot compresses, lots of nursing, and lecithin supplements.)
  • When you get the baby home and he's desperate with hunger and your milk isn't in yet, remember that this is the hardest part, right now. It will never be this hard again. (That is to say, it will get harder right around ten weeks when the baby starts doing nursing strikes, but after five weeks of hell that problem will be mostly resolved and nothing in parenthood for the following four years will even hold a candle to it for sheer soul-crushing hardness.)
  • Remember to apply for parental leave. As absurd as it sounds, this does mean that you have to apply for contracts you have no intention of fulfilling. It's not up to you to figure out how to finish your contract the month after the baby is born; you're allowed to start teaching a course and then take leave part-way through.

2005: Baby #2
  • Here are some things that will make your life easier: napping/changing stations in every room in the house; summer weather (July is a GREAT time to have a baby); co-sleeping for the first couple of months; soothers.
  • Stop reading Babycenter. There's something out there called the blogosphere, and if you find a few mommy-blogs now, it will save you from months of unnecessary Flylady-inspired housecleaning as you look for some kind of structure during those months of maternity leave.

What about you? Any words of advice to share that you no longer have a use for in your own life?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Stubbornly Compliant

On the face of it, Bub is a stubborn boy.

"He doesn't like it when people tell him to stop doing something," I observed blandly to another parent yesterday at the Little Gym as Pie and I peered worriedly through the window. Bub stood there with his trademark stricken expression, his face an outline of pure despair because he had been gently asked to sit down in the circle.

"Too bad the terrible twos don't end when they're done being two," the dad replied sympathetically. "He's an independent little guy, isn't he? Likes to do things his way."

Well, yes. His Little Gym classes are an exercise in willfulness. He sings the songs, jumps on the air track, and clambers over the equipment gleefully. What he does not do - what he flatly refuses to do - is any actual gymnastics. He adores Mister Jeff, but when Mister Jeff beckons him to practice a front roll or a pullover, Bub invariably responds with a stern shake of the head. Bub will happily do anything he's asked, so long as he can do it without assistance.

Bub is so easily mistaken for a defiant, oppositional child, that I've given up trying to explain to people the deep vein of compliance that runs through his nature. To be sure, his first response to any act of communication is flat denial. Every day last week, I prepared him for nursery school by saying, "Today is your Special Day, Bub! You can choose a toy for show and tell!" And every day he responded the same way - with flat disbelief. It can be discouraging, I will admit, when your every remark is greeted with instant and emphatic contradiction. But I have noticed that he will hold me to my words, even if he denies them at the time. Information creeps in through that mask of habitual refusal.

For his compliance to emerge, all Bub needs is for the rules to be clear and to be told them ahead of time. After a 5:45 awakening a few mornings ago, I finally decided that Bub was ready to grasp the principle of a 7:00 wake-up time. We bought a clock radio and installed it in his bedroom. When he leapt out of bed at 6:08 the following morning, I chanted my new mantra, a whispered hiss through his sobs of protest: "There is no breakfast and no lights on until that number says seven!" At 6:08, he wailed and struggled, subsiding only when I gave him a little Tarzan toy to take back to bed with him. At 6:22, he glared at me, but climbed back in bed of his own accord. At 6:45, he asked for a cozy tuck-in and then remained quiet until the dot of seven. The next morning, and each morning since then, he has waited until seven before leaping from his bed with a joyful stage whisper: "It's seven-oh-three! Hurry, hurry, it's wake-up time!"

I don't have to threaten punishments or promise rewards: all I have to do to secure compliance from my stubborn, independent, oppositional child is give him a clear rule that he can follow without assistance.

"Guess what Bub?" I told him this morning. "You're going on a city bus with all the kids from nursery school! You're going to a science show!"

"I don't think so! I don't think we are doing that." Bub's rejoinder was predictable, but he said it with a sneaking smile. I think he's looking forward to his field trip.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Jabberwocky

Bub's Turn to Read the Bedtime Story

If you give a mouse a tabinger,
He's going to ask for a glass of kennel.
When you give him the kennel,
He'll probably ask you for a neckerton.
Then he'll want to look in the mirror to make sure he doesn't have a milk mustache no, navager.
When he looks into the mirror, he might notice that his hair needs a kenner.
So he'll probably ask for a pair of dunders.
When he's done, he'll want to take a nap.
You'll have to fix up a little bed toy for him with a docker and a rocker.
He'll crawl in, make himself comfortable, and fluff the pillow docker a few times.
Then he'll ask you to read him a diviger.
When he looks at the divigers, he'll get so excited he'll want to draw one of his own.
When the diviger is finished, he'll want to sign his name ...
... with a penner.
Then he'll want to hang it on your refrigerator
Which means he'll need ...
Scotch neighbourhood.
Looking at the refrigerator will remind him that he's UGGY!
So ...
He'll ask for a glass of navinger.
And chances are if he asks for a glass of navinger,
He's going to want a dinderdonder to go with it.

(I'll leave you to imagine the escalating shrieks of hilarity with every substitution. And is it just me, or is it a bit startling that a boy for whom gender pronouns are still a constant battle is able to create nonsense words that are recognizably the correct parts of speech? "Uggy" instead of thirsty, "dunders" instead of scissors. Lewis Carroll would be proud.)

My Six-Word Epitaph

Why live when you can theorize?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Interior Monologue

"Andy has a brother ... named SID!"

"It's a man, and a ladder, and a SLIDE! Rawwwr!"

"I took a picnic, and it's right there, I know what's there, it's a piggy bank, and it's my toy. He took one of my toys, 'cause ... what? That wasn't very nice! Leave them there!"

This is the soundtrack of my evenings: Pie's voice burbling through the monitor as I sit here marking papers blogging. It rises and falls in a steady cadence, with occasional shrieks of protest at imaginary thefts or excitement at imaginary triumphs. Tonight's monologue suggests that Toy Story is, as always, on her mind. Like Bub, who awoke from a nightmare last week shrieking, "My toy! She took it! She took my toy!" Pie's world is one of defended possessions, piggy banks and Play-Doh canisters that must be guarded with constant vigilance.

It's easy to take this window into my daughter's mind for granted. At one time, both my children spent the first hour or two of each night emitting this stream of chitchat, fake snores, and occasional cries for help. And then one night, Bub fell silent. At first I assumed that the cessation of the afternoon nap had enabled him to fall asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. But after catching him grinning mischievously on the stairs a few times I realized that he, too, lies awake at night, but his chitchat has moved inward; he has developed an interior monologue. It is all the more striking, this development, in my son who has only just learned to communicate his thoughts in words, as if the ability to speak were, for him, contingent upon the ability to remain silent.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Boy World

Bub is not the boy I feared I would have when I walked away from my 19-week ultrasound five years ago, clutching a few blurry photographs and some earth-tilting news. He is not a climber, an escape artist, a puller of pigtails. But he lives in Boy World for all that, a landscape which, like Neverland, is furnished by a child's imagination (or, at least, it was before it was bought out by Disney).

At the center of Boy World is the Sports Complex. Even at the entry gate one can hear sneakers squeaking on gym floors and catch the occasional errant hockey puck. Bub gives this area a wide berth. "That's not a hockey shirt!" he corrects well-meaning grown-ups when he wears his favourite sweater - "that's a Toronto Maple Leafs shirt!"

Just past the Sports Complex, occupying the entire northwest corner of Boy World, is the Raceway. Most of Bub's friends live here full-time, immersing themselves in the intricacies of makes and models, learning to distinguish Lightning McQueen from his lesser-known rivals. When they venture out of this corner, it's only to visit the construction site next door with its bulldozers and backhoes. There is little here to interest Bub; after putting a dump truck through its paces, he usually wanders off.

The Island of Sodor can hold his interest a bit longer; Percy, James, and Thomas have a universal appeal to which Bub is not immune. He spent most of last summer here, building tracks and guiding trains across them, unperturbed by the occasional reptilian bellow emerging from Dinosaur Land in the southeast corner, just beyond the Chamber of Horrors.

Bub runs past these attractions with barely a second glance; he's on his way to Animal World and Numbers Junction, with its adjoining Colours and Shapes Library. Here he'll spend the entire afternoon while other boys run rampant, kicking balls and roaring like monsters.

He'll bring his sister along with him - girls are allowed in Boy World these days. The walls that surround and protect it are not designed to keep girls out - in fact, the entire park is crawling with parents, sisters, girls-next-door. Those high, benevolent walls are permeable, but they are also what make Boy World what it is: an essentially juvenile place, where adult emotions and social subtleties are not allowed.

There is no meanness in Boy World - at least not in the five-and-under section. Outside its walls lies the Popularity Pavilion, right beside the Acting Like a Grown-Up Street Theatre and the Adult Worries Picnic Table. Girls in princess dresses circulate freely out here, watching us with eyes that miss nothing. But the boys, they are safe, for now at least, in a world that they don't even realize is bounded by both time and space. From the inside, its innocent, logical acres look like the whole world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

I Can't Handle the Truthiness

All the cool kids are doing it: posting unedited, unretouched photographs of their pre-coffee, pre-make-up, pre-shower selves.

The conventions of the genre appear to extend to facial expressions as well: like the "Before" shots on A Make-Over Story, the expressions are neutral - no flirty smiles, no attempt to conceal the hideous truth.

It's not entirely clear exactly how true these photos of truthiness have to be. Are we allowed to remove any visible boogery bits in our eye sockets and nostrils? Scrub away the dried spittle from our chins? Take multiple shots until we find one with the right double-chin-concealing angle?

I mulled over these questions in the shower this morning. Technically, I had already missed my window for real truthiness: coffee had been drunk several hours before, and it was too late - obviously - for any pre-shower self-portraiture. The make-up, though - I had not yet prepared that part of my face to meet the faces I would meet.

It's a funny thing, make-up. When you're thirteen years old and slathering on the blue eyeliner in an attempt to look older, it invariably backfires - nothing says "elementary school" quite like sky-blue make-up too-enthusiastically applied. And then at some indefinable point, make-up stops making us look younger and starts making us look older. It's the same principle as "The Purloined Letter": the best place to hide those signs of aging is out in plain sight - nothing calls attention to them so much as our strategies of concealment.

The truthy photos are a case in point: undeniably, these women are lovely. They're like Amanda on Survivor or Kate on Lost, all glowing and natural, so much prettier in that state than in the flash-forward/reunion show, all dolled up and looking somehow older and smaller than their luminous island selves.

Such, at least, were my thoughts as I emerged from the shower and took a few experimental photos of my luminous, tropical-island, all-natural face. I didn't panic right away: surely the problem with those first few shots was that I wasn't looking in the mirror and thus my attempts at a studiedly neutral expression instead came out steely and hostile. Looking in the mirror helped a bit, but not much: I hit Trash/Delete, Trash/Delete before finally deciding that this shot was tolerable, mostly because only part of my face was in it:


After hurriedly applying what I believed to be my usual, almost-invisible, natural-looking make-up, I took this shot:


Conclusion: my theories about make-up are approximately twelve years out of date. Perhaps when I was twenty-five I looked better without make-up, but not anymore. Now I look my best not only with lipstick but also with a flash-induced halo of flaw-concealing light.

Riddle

I'm too tiny to be seen
But you'll know when I'm around.
I make children who can't keep quiet
And adults who can't make a sound.
What am I?

*****

Did you know that it's possible to do the following things without uttering a word?

  • Teach three college classes (a test, group work, presentations).
  • Have lunch with a friend who is skilled at devising conversational topics that require little more than an occasional enthusiastic nod or shake of the head.
  • Guide Bub through an apology to his caregiver's teenage daughter, whom he had greeted at the door with a shout of, "You! Stay away from me!" (This did require a whispered instruction, "You hurt her feelings!" before contrition took over.)

Did you know that it's virtually impossible to do the following things when your voicebox emits nothing more than the occasional croak?

  • Write blog posts. My inability to talk has created a kind of mental constipation, a backlog of unbloggable trivia that has to be cleared before proper blogging can resume.
  • Comfort the Pie when she's in a tantrum. My usual gambits for relenting-while-saving-face all rely on my ability to say things like, "Why don't you ask for that nicely?" When those words can't be heard above her screams of "I want it!" I have little choice but to let her flail around on the floor until her cries finally resolve into a heartbroken "I need to feel better."
  • Act like a Mama. That, at least, was Bub's conclusion yesterday when I picked him up from day-care still silent except for the occasional not-quite-a-whisper. While Pie shouted, "Talk louder!" Bub gave me a level look. "You are not able to act like a Mama," he concluded.

Ouch.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Breaking News: Children and Adults Not the Same

A recent study has shown that there are significant differences between children and adults.

"Adults tend to be self-motivated," explains sociologist Richard Richards, who led the pioneering study. "Left to themselves, nearly 70% of adults display an ability to get dressed, make breakfast, and begin productive work." The same was not true for the test group of toddlers aged 1-3. "The children displayed great initiative in playing with their toys," Richards remarks, "but their ability to cook was poor and their colour-coordination negligible."

The results of the study are expected to send shock waves through the ranks of child-care experts. Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, whose book Sleepless in America compares cry-it-out parents to irresponsible nursing home operators, could not be reached for comment. Nevertheless, the infant-care portion of the study responds directly to her suggestion that babies be treated according to the elder-care model. As Richards explains, "Meal times were posted on a bulletin board and announced over a P.A. system, yet 74% of babies below the age of one did not arrive at the dining room on time, and many did not show up at all." Experimentation with the menu did little to improve the situation: on shepherd's pie night, attendance was only slightly lower than during the much-publicized Post-Natal Pizza Pizzazz.

Parents are expected to welcome the results of the study. Jason P., a father of two who recently spent 39 minutes in time-out for referring to a work colleague as "stupid," told reporters that he's grateful for this evidence that it's okay to treat children differently from adults. "I was getting really tired of watching PBS Kids."

A local mother who insists on being identified only as "Bea" was equally gratified. "Comparing child-care to elder-care just doesn't make sense," she claimed. "In the course of a single day I repeatedly treat my children in ways I would never treat a grown adult. Just yesterday I had to hold both my children down in order to get their pyjamas on - and I forcibly removed a box of Fudgeos from my daughter's hands when I found her hiding in the pantry with them."

Asked to respond to Bea's remarks, Richards looks uneasy. "I wouldn't want this message to be distorted," he cautions. "While the study did reveal certain statistical gaps between the child and adult populations, it's important to remember to treat all groups with respect."

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

All Right Then, Have An Earache

Bub: (on being offered grape-flavoured Children's Advil, cleverly disguised as applesauce) I don't think this is applesauce, Daddy. I think this is medicine sauce.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Artifice

There's a certain stiffness of bearing that can only be seen when a jeans- and t-shirt-clad woman leaves the hair salon with a six-foot bridal veil attached to her head. Every muscle is tensed, as if pure effort could keep the curls from relaxing, the stray tendrils from pulling free in the breeze. Already the up-do has lost its salon-set perfection, and Pachelbel's Canon in D is still hours away.

That's what my house feels like right now. We won't be putting it on the market for another month or two, but through a neighbour we found out about a potential buyer, so I rashly promised that he could view the house tonight, planning to spend the weekend "doing what we can" to get it ready.

Seventy-two hours later, we have made up for months and even years of procrastination. Christmas gifts have finally been put away, child safety gates taken down - the house is poised, ready for its big moment, and I'm a little scared to breathe in case I ruin the illusion.

The layers of artifice are mind-boggling: we have followed the conventional wisdom and denuded every surface of photographs and knick-knacks. The casual shots of Bub riding a pony at the fair are gone, leaving only a few wall portraits: our family as seen by Sears Portrait Studio. Yesterday, I had about eighty unread books stacked in piles by my bedside table; now, there are two novels placed strategically, their matching spines turned outward. The towels we used after our showers this morning have been replaced with freshly laundered look-alikes; I keep stalking about the house, examining every surface for stray bits of hair or food, tell-tale evidence that this house is inhabited by biological beings rather than mannequins. (When did life start to imitate plastic?)

My goal in all this decluttering has been to create a vague impression of family: a few stuffed animals in the crib (are six too many?), a symbolic jacket hanging from a hook by the door. Ours is an inhabited house pretending to be an uninhabited house pretending to be an inhabited house - a model-home wannabe with all the detritus of real life shoe-horned into closet corners, a real home striving for the appearance of artificiality. Moments after the buyer is gone, the four of us will tumble in, scattering snowy boots and damp jackets on the Rug-Doctored carpet. Bath toys will erupt in the tub; clothes, diapers, and pyjamas will scatter in all directions. Even before we unpack the coffee table and the toys, real life will put its stamp on a house that sits inert now, expectant, not a hair out of place.