Thursday, May 29, 2008

We Have Brick

(SNIP long meditation on how blind I once was to colours and shapes, how revelatory it is to have my vision so honed that I can recognize at a glance the difference between genuine reclaimed brick and new imitations thereof, not to mention my newfound ability to identify on sight the difference between Concord Ivory and Wyndham Cream paint. It's like the ear training I used to do for my piano exams, only for my eyes.

CUT directly to photos.)

Brick and siding:


Maybe a yellow door?


Random house I drove past that looks like it has similar brick and siding:


(Regular blogging to resume sometime in September.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shy Girls

It's not unusual for parents to be dismayed by signs of shyness in their children. There's nothing mysterious or baffling in that response - there's a reason the most commonly applied adjective for shyness is "painful." Shyness can be torture; it can be incapacitating. But that hasn't stopped me from feeling just a little bit smug about my daughter's shyness. Pie is the girl who hides under the piano bench when visitors arrive; she's the one who darts around the corner in alarm when the nursery school teacher says hello. I, too, was that girl, and I know how uncomfortable shyness can be. So why am I so pleased to see signs of shyness in the Pie?

Shy girls know their own power. Their very body language expresses a certain dignity, while all around them more gregarious children bounce around like puppy dogs, lapping up attention. Other children compete for attention; shy girls bestow it.

It's an honour to have the loyalty of a shy girl. Pie keeps an internal list of her "favourites" - Grandma, Mama, Daddy. The list does not reflect the vagaries of a moment's anger; it represents a psychological boundary she has erected around her inner circle, the trusted, permanent fixtures of her life. I picture her as a young Queen Elizabeth I, repelling the Spanish Armada with the help of a few trusted counsellors.

All the best children's books are about shy girls. (Except Anne of Green Gables. And maybe Little Women.) To be a shy girl, and a reader, is to be surrounded by prickly, hostile, self-contained peers. Mary Lennox, Emily Starr, Harriet M. Welsch - all of them help nurture a sense that there is something deeply fascinating about controlled, introspective young girls who do most of their living in imaginary landscapes. Talkative, popular girls have an undeniable appeal, of course, but the shy ones are more individualized. Still waters run deep.

Shy girls don't necessarily become shy women. Growing up has a way of taming shyness into a more conventional kind of introversion. In adult life, a former shy girl no longer has the option of scowling at an unwelcome greeting or scurrying for cover when a distant acquaintance approaches. The formerly shy adult develops subtler mechanisms, perfects the art of not making eye contact in the grocery store in order to evade an exchange of pleasantries. The formerly shy develop personas, often very polished ones. They ask leading questions; they draw others out; they learn the intricacies of self-deprecating humour. But inside they have a private space that others can't touch. They know who they are.

Friday, May 23, 2008

It's Not Just Paint That Comes In Chips

... counter-tops do too. (At least if you get the cheap ones.)

It took two hours, and left me totally exhausted, but I managed to make the following four choices yesterday:

Kitchen cupboards:


Desk and island:



Kitchen counters:


Bathroom counters:


Now I get to wait two weeks for the full design in order to find out if I can afford this stuff. The best part? The kitchen counter is called Rocky Road - just like the ice cream AND just like the Benjamin Moore colour right beside Cabot Trail (which has now replaced Flagstone as my front-runner for living-room/dining-room after this week's discussion of whether it was grey or brown).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reader Opinion Poll

Situation: I'm in the car, listening to the Barenaked Ladies' new kids' CD,
Snack Time
, and laughing at their parody of CBC radio: at the end of a little jazz number called "Food Party" a silky smooth voice comes on announcing, "Next up on Radio C-A-K-E, Bar-uh-NAH-ked La-DEE-es with 'The Canadian Snacktime Trilogy.'" There are a few chords from an acoustic guitar and then Gordon Lightfoot's mellow voice fills the car singing, "Ohhhh, snack time. Ohhhh, snack time."

Why am I crying?

Answers:
(a) Whenever I hear Gordon Lightfoot I remember how I was listening to his Greatest Hits CD in the delivery room when the Pie was born. ("It's daylight Katy, come on!")

(b) The inside joke for grownups - clearly aimed over the heads of the child listeners - reminds me that I'm right in the middle, now, of that brief window of time when the children and I occupy the same cultural space - where the best songs and stories for them will be the ones with some kind of entertainment value for me in these brief years before literacy and headphones wedge us apart.

(c) I have PMS.

(d) All of the above.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Odd, But in a Good Way

I have a habit of putting too much emphasis on the first syllable of proper nouns. SWISS Chalet. PIER 1 Imports. Nothing makes me feel so loved as the snort of affectionate laughter my best friend produces whenever I do that. There is recognition in that snort; there is history, knowledge, acceptance.

The great thing about blogger meet-ups is that they are punctuated with such moments of familiarity and recognition. After a blissful weekend of bed-and-breakfasting with maritime bloggers (and Upper Canadian imports), I'm nostalgic for that atmosphere of affectionate mockery. All weekend long we mocked Cinnamon Gurl for putting ketchup and tabasco sauce on her omelet; we mocked Niobe for the condiment-phobia that had her averting her eyes in disgust; we mocked Bon for eating all the dessert and Mad Hatter for her uncanny memory for the month and year in which particular blog posts were published. Thordora mocked me for the paint chips I kept pulling out of my purse (I pulled them out once, in a store in Lunenberg, just to see if someone would catch me in the act and mock me for it). I would like to write a whole post about all the delicious food we ate (banana pancakes, corn fritters, French toast with freshly stewed rhubarb, fish cakes and key lime pie, whipped cream on everything, home-baked chocolate chip cookies, sandwiches with cream cheese, pecans and sliced pears...) - but I know if I did that they'd all come here and mock me.

It was a sad day in my unhappy first marriage when I realized that the phrase, "That's so you" - uttered fondly by my friends - would only ever come from my husband as a kind of accusation. It is my personal definition of friendship, perhaps, that those characteristic traits are welcomed with mockery rather than rejected with disgust. We are quirky, annoying, damaged people, we bloggers. When we get together we skip the polite tittle-tattle, filling the air instead with talk that seems almost designed to frighten the hapless ordinary folk within earshot. We tell our birth stories in harrowing obstetrical detail; we talk about sex, drugs, mental illness, marriage, politics, and the Myers-Briggs personality types (okay, that was just me), all at length and at high volume. We try (without success) to drum up creative synonyms for the word "half-wit." When we gather around the fireplace in our plaid flannel housecoats we can wear our quirks on our sleeves, basking in the affection that can only come from people who have long ago stopped caring about being normal. It's a marvelously freeing sensation.


Mad and me, and a little bit of ocean.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Magnetism

When I dropped Pie off at day-care this morning, Maddy came up to give her a big hug. Maddy is around eighteen months old, one of several children Pie refers to dismissively as "the babies." In reaction to her greeting, Pie shrugged off her embrace and glared.

This is typical of my daughter's response to other human beings. She mostly doesn't like them and wishes they would leave her alone. There are a few exceptions to this rule: her immediate family, her grandmothers (though decidedly NOT her grandfathers), and all five-year-old girls, whom she worships and admires. The other exception is Claudia.

We met Claudia at Pie's Little Gym class. She is just Pie's height, but all chubby belly and crinkly eyes. She takes everything at a run, giggling irrepressibly. I have never met a more contagiously happy person. She radiates joy and no one can resist her, including the Pie. If Claudia jumps off a cliff (or a stack of gym mats), Pie will follow.

After dropping my antisocial daughter off at daycare, I moved on to Bub's nursery school, where he approached a group of children playing with blocks. "Hi, Bub!" a friendly girl greeted him as he brushed by.

"We're building a house for the aminals!" another boy explained jovially. No response.

Suddenly Bub's face lit up. "Look who came to play!" he announced ecstatically. "It's Robert! Let's go tap him on the shoulder!" Recalling his sessions on social communication with his speech therapist, Bub approached and tapped him on the shoulder, saying his name as he'd been taught. "Hi Robert!"

Unimpressed, Robert shrugged his shoulders. As he turned, I could see that his lip was swollen - a souvenir of his latest mischief, I suspect. (When his mother was telling stories about him at the last parent meeting, they tended to begin with comments like, "Have I told you the one about the chandelier?") Robert is not quite four, but he is undeniably cool. His dad is a firefighter and he has inherited his adventurous spirit. His is the only name that elicits anecdotes from Bub when I ask about his day. Robert wore a lion suit! Robert was funny.

It amazes me how easy they are to identify, the Roberts and Claudias - people with a powerful magnetism that can't help but reach everyone around them, even my own prickly, oblivious children.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Piranhas and Snakes

Awhile back, during one of those postless weeks I've been having, I was brewing up a post about Hurt Feelings, and The Importance of Not Having Them. It was going to go something like this:

  • My Dad is impossible to offend. You can insult him to his face and he'll smile genially, your insults rolling like water off a duck's back. This makes him exceptionally easy to live with.
  • Not getting offended - it's the gift that keeps on giving. It makes you happier (because you're not nursing wounded feelings over real or imagined insults), and it makes everybody else happy too (because they don't have to walk on eggshells around you).
  • Do we actually have a choice about how sensitive we are to feelings of rejection and hurt? Are there mental choices (such as giving the benefit of the doubt) that we can cultivate in order to become less easily wounded?

And so on and so on. You can see why I didn't bother posting it - because no matter how many anecdotes or theories I try to pack in there, the underlying smugness is unmistakable. I'm awesome! If only everybody were more like meeeee!

I thought of that yesterday when Bub started screaming in agony. I was reading Pie her pre-nap stories, but his wails of despair could not be ignored. I headed downstairs and found him locked in the bathroom, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. There was no open wound on his forehead, no signs that immediate hospitalization would be necessary. "What's the matter, Bub? Why are you crying?"

Bub drew a shuddering breath. "Because you said, 'Don't touch the TV, please, Bub'" - fresh tears breaking forth - "and it hurt my feelings!"

In some ways, Bub is startlingly like my genial, extraverted father. He has a friendly hello for everyone, even if he has no real idea of how to continue a conversation beyond that scripted greeting. He isn't a shy child, like the Pie; he doesn't hide under the piano bench when visitors arrive, but instead adopts one of two modes - cheerful attention or total immersion in his own activities. Either way, he is unperturbed. His new capacity for hurt feeling - one he has been demonstrating several times per day - feels like a form of growing pains. Not the dull, comfortable achiness of growing bones, but a snakelike growth, a raw new skin quivering in the breeze of his new social awareness. His old imperviousness has been stripped away, and he has not yet become used to his new skin.

We were at McDonald's the other night, hanging out at the PlayPlace while the buyers of our home did their inspection. Bub latched on to the only other child present, approaching her confidently. "Are you my friend?" he asked. "Are you my best friend?"

The girl gave him a quizzical look before responding honestly, "No."

Bub was not deterred. "Come on!" he prompted and dived into one of the tunnels. After a moment's hesitation, the girl followed right behind him. For half an hour, they stuck together like glue, chatting and squealing as they climbed up and slid down. We never discovered this new best friend's name; when necessary, Bub addressed her as "you." Their alliance lasted until it was time to go home.

Bub's skin is still thick enough that he can take some initial rejection. His pursuit is open and frank, difficult to resist. But when he comes home it's as if he's practicing for the ordeals that he dimly perceives ahead of him, toying with feelings of rejection before sticking his toe further into the piranha-infested waters of friendship. I am amazed, delighted, at his new capacity for social interaction. So why do I feel almost breathless with fear?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Anti-Dora

We turned the TV on last night for the first time in weeks. Our vacation from the world of PBS Kids and Treehouse was not an extension of Turn Off Your Screens week or the result of some new, ambitious model of parenting. It was the fallout from my children's discovery of their grandmother's stash of Disney videos and DVDs. For weeks I have been subjected to a continuous round of Brother Bear (dreck), The Lion King (in which the cuteness of toddler voices singing "Hakuna Matata" only partially compensates for the traumatic storyline and violent plot), and Lilo and Stitch (which, I must confess, I absolutely love - it's Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden with the roles of Yorkshire and India taken by Hawaii and, um, outer space).

So when we conceded to a half hour of TV before bedtime last night, it was the first time I had come across Ni Hao, Kai Lan. Have you seen this show? It follows the formula of Dora the Explorer - plucky heroine surrounded by animal friends, interactive second-person dialogue, and end-of-episode recaps - but instead of riding zip cords across Emerald Canyon, Kai Lan directs her problem-solving abilities towards dilemmas like a koala bear who doesn't want to share his toys, or a little monkey who has a hard time waiting. Instead of teaching Spanish, Ni Hao, Kai Lan introduces Mandarin Chinese, and instead of celebrating adventure and independence, it promotes empathy and friendship.

"Look at his face," Kai Lan beseeches her viewers. "What is he feeling?" Tolee looks angry and miserable. "WHY is he feeling sad?" Kai-lan asks. Tolee clutches his panda bear possessively, confirming Kai Lan's theory that he's sad because he doesn't want to share. Kai Lan sympathizes with his feelings - sometimes it's really hard to share - and stays with him until he "gets it": when you share, everybody gets to play!

It's hard to imagine a show better suited to the kind of learning Bub is working on right now. Facial expressions, "why" questions, episodic memory - it's all there. According to the Nickelodeon website, the show's Chinese-culture-based curriculum promotes perspective-taking and awareness of the physical sensations associated with emotional states. Hubby's favourite part is the emphasis on calm. Where Western culture (and most children's programming) focuses on states of excitement and enthusiasm, Chinese culture values the state of calm. Hubby, I suspect, would feel far more at home in East Asia than he does here, since his natural inclination is towards courtesy, moderation, and calm.

The show's format, with its obvious debts to Dora the Explorer, makes its message all the more startling. Habituated as I am to Dora's trademark confidence and independence, I find the plot lines of Ni Hao, Kai Lan an almost comical change. The episode list on Wikipedia highlights themes like bragging and competition. It's okay to lose sometimes. Bragging makes your friends feel bad. Where Dora voyages triumphantly across the seven seas and through the dark forest, Kai Lan faces dilemmas such as "Kai Lan and Lulu can't agree on what games to play together" and "Rintoo gets mad when Hoho copies his hat."

Dora is a show about power and success; Kai Lan is a show about deference and wisdom. The irony, perhaps, is that the latter does far more than the former to arm my son with the skills he needs to succeed.