Friday, October 31, 2008

Winded

The boys come pounding up the stairs - five-year-old cousins, three months apart in age. "Where's Bub?" Jake's mother asks.

"Downstairs."

"Well, could you go ask if he would like a snack?"

Obediently, Jake trots downstairs, returning a moment later. "He said no."

*****

"Bub's E.A. is all excited about these playdates," Ashley remarks. "I said, well, we've gotten together once." She pauses delicately. "I'm just worried because sometimes Jake can be a bit of a jerk. I wouldn't want Bub to count on this as part of his routine."

*****

"Remember, there are three of you today," Ashley tells Jake and his cousin as they disappear downstairs, hockey sticks in hand. "Three boys. That means three get to play."

*****

Pie pulls on my hand, tugging me downstairs to help her get an out-of-reach toy. The boys are playing hockey. An older cousin is the goaltender; Jake and Kevin are passing the puck back and forth, angling for their best shot.

"You missed!" Bub shouts gleefully, pouncing on a puck that shot just wide of the net. He's having fun. He doesn't notice that he's the only one without a stick, playing by rules of his own devising.

*****

It's time to leave and Bub is hiding behind the couch, emerging only when a return visit is promised. Next week - same time, same place. Jack and Kevin are back downstairs already, having delivered their obligatory goodbyes.

"Thanks for having us," I say as we climb in the car. Ashley helps buckle Bub in.

"Anytime," she replies, heartily enough that it takes several blocks before I realize that I can't breathe.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kids, Parents, and Friendships

I made my first friend when I was three years old. The way I did it was this: I approached her and said, "Will you be my friend?" and she said, "Yes." That friendship came to a natural close when I graduated from our Montessori school and went to kindergarten the following year, but I can still remember the swell of pride I felt at having made my first friend.

That was not, of course, the first time I had ever played with another child. My mother had taken me to play with the daughters of her friends, occasions I looked forward to and enjoyed. I had even gone to birthday parties and had these little girls over to the house for my birthday. But clearly in my three-year-old mind, the term "friend" did not apply to these children. A friend was something you made, not something your mom handed you on a silver platter.

When we moved to a new town for grade one, I spent more than five lonely months wandering the playground alone at recess. I had learned enough about social rejection by then that the direct approach I had favoured as a three-year-old no longer seemed like an option. My friendless state continued until I was forcibly adopted by Tracey, a big, bossy girl, tall enough to be mistaken for a ten-year-old. My relief was intense.

I've thought of these anecdotes many times over the years, mostly in terms of what they reveal about my personality. Already at age three I was a shy child; I desperately wanted friends but wasn't confident of my ability to secure them. More accurately, I should say that I wanted a friend - I had no interest in the promiscuous behaviour of my peers: one monogamous friendship was enough for me.

In the three decades since my forlorn six-year-old self wandered the playground alone, I have recalled these stories often, but one thought that has never crossed my mind is, "Wow, my parents really dropped the ball on that one."

In yesterday's post at Apathy Lounge, the blogger, a substitute teacher, described the plight of Casey, a new boy in town who's having a hard time adjusting to second grade. His struggles are not helped by his negligent parents who, among other lapses in parental attention, have failed to get to know other parents or arrange playdates so that Casey could start fitting into his new community.

Baffled might be the best word to describe my reaction to this assumption that childhood social success is contingent upon parental involvement. (Some of the comments on my "Playdate Paranoia" post made the same connection and provoked a similar response.) In my recollection, the world of childhood friendship was a kids-only environment, a jungle impenetrable to well-meaning parents whose attempts to interfere couldn't do much good and might do some harm. At best parents might provide a listening ear and some sage advice, but none of the schoolyard friendships I knew of as a child had been fostered (much less created) by parental plotting and scheming. There were, to be sure, kids in my class whose mothers were close friends, but these children regarded one another with a kind of distant wariness. Whatever went on at home, everyone understood that the politics of the primary-school environment were ours to craft for ourselves.

In retrospect, though, I wonder how many of our peer assessments reflected the parents' traits more than the kids'. I can remember Belinda, for instance, who always arrived at school five minutes late, her hair looking like a bird's nest as her frazzled mother hurriedly bundled her and her brother to their classrooms. Belinda occupied a position somewhere on the periphery of social acceptance, but was that because of her chronic lateness and dishevelled appearance, or because she invariably landed in the lowest math and reading groups?

My own mother sent me off to school nicely dressed in turtlenecks and culottes - but whatever she managed to achieve in that direction must have been undermined by my habit of wiping my nose on my sleeve. Well into the third grade I came home from school each winter afternoon with my nice, clean shirts a snot-encrusted mess. It stands to reason that prompt haircuts, well-fitting clothes, and nicely trimmed fingernails would promote popularity, but can these measures really stand a chance in that primary-school world where children will still accost their classmates at recess, demanding a bite of their Oreo cookies? (Or maybe that was just me.)

How much power do you think parents have over their children's social acceptance? To what extent do you make parenting decisions - about what shows your children watch, what clothes they wear and what snacks they take to school - based on the desire to foster your child's friendships and popularity?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Evil, Parenting, and Moral Goodness

This week I've been reading Mary Henley Rubio's long-awaited biography of L.M. Montgomery, The Gift of Wings. In it she draws attention to a trend in Montgomery's journals. As she grew older, Montgomery continued to write novels about bright, imaginative girls thwarted in their ambitions by narrow-minded adults, but in her journals she began to collect another kind of tale: stories of parents let down by their ne'er-do-well children. Young men embezzling funds from the church offering plate - young women requiring hastily-arranged weddings ... these are the characters peopling her private chronicles.

Montgomery had reason to be worried: her son Chester had demonstrated a lifelong tendency towards dishonesty and self-indulgence. He pilfered jewelry from their housemaids; he was a compulsive eater; he did his best to corner neighbourhood girls, who soon learned to keep out of his clutches.

Writers don't always make the best mothers, and Montgomery was no exception: even her "good son," Stuart, remembered pushing flowers under the door of his mother's office when she was holed up inside, laughing aloud in private merriment as she concocted her latest novel. What time she could spare for her sons involved policing their social and academic lives, promoting friendships with suitably wealthy and prestigious neighbours and discouraging attachments with those she considered beneath her family's social station. It's not difficult to find parenting mistakes when you're looking for them, yet I cannot believe that Montgomery can be held responsible for her son's misdemeanours (which in due course became full-fledged crimes).

The issue of maternal culpability is central to another book I read last year: Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin. The narrator of that novel is Eva Khatchadourian, member of a small and exclusive club of mothers whose sons have committed high-school massacres. The novel is made up of letters from Eva to Kevin's father, Franklin, and they all deal, overtly or otherwise, with Franklin's unstated accusation that Eva was responsible for her son's murders.

Eva's recollections of Kevin's infancy and childhood point to the classic symptoms of a sociopathic disorder. Kevin is cold, detached, and malicious, traits he carefully conceals under a mask of bonhomie. His father is taken in, but Eva always insists that there's something wrong. Reading her account, I find it impossible to blame her for her son's crimes, yet what makes the novel so haunting - and lifts it above mere sensationalism - are the hints that his rampage could have been prevented. Long after finishing the novel, I am most haunted by a scene in which Kevin is ill; he briefly drops his usual antagonism and defensiveness, actually accepting and even seeking his mother's affection. This brief glimpse of a Kevin who is not merely vulnerable but, more importantly, capable of attachment suggests that Kevin is more than the "bad seed" - that there is potential in him, even if there's no obvious way to unlock it.

As parents we are responsible for the moral growth of our children. In Montgomery's day this task was described as teaching them right from wrong: it involved instruction in moral and religious precepts, reinforced with punishments for bad behaviour. When Montgomery comments in her journals that six-year-old Chester has always been difficult to "train," she is acknowledging the failure of these tried-and-true methods. More recently, the task of moral education has evolved into meeting the child's emotional needs: our more optimistic generation has concluded that children who are shown love and empathy will learn to display those traits themselves. I suspect that both approaches work well with normal children.

A third parenting approach is explored in the television series Dexter. The protagonist, Dexter Morgan, is a phenomenon that does not occur in nature: a serial killer who kills only other murderers. In the first two seasons the show uses flashbacks to trace the origins of this strange hybrid of monster and hero. There are hints that Dexter may have a genetic predisposition towards sociopathy; if so, the childhood traumas he endured merely sealed his fate. The turning point in his life, however, is a conversation with his father, Harry, who has just discovered that his son has been killing animals, including the neighbours' dog. Harry's reaction is complex: he looks sickened, but he puts his arm around Dexter's shoulders. He knows the signs of what his son is becoming, but he doesn't turn away. Instead he trains Dexter, channeling his propensities for violence in socially beneficial ways and creating the code that Dexter continues to follow as an adult.

Harry is credited for doing what few parents could: facing his son's darkness head-on, without pretense, and loving him unconditionally. As a result, Dexter retains some ability to form emotional connections: he remains attached to his sister and even manages a reasonably successful relationship with his girlfriend and her two kids. But the show always toys with the possibility that Harry, far from saving Dexter from a worse fate, has schooled him to become what Harry believed he already was: a heartless killer. We see a teenaged Dexter reading books on sociopathy, seeing himself reflected in the symptomology and constructing his sense of self accordingly. We see Harry showing Dexter an MRI of his brain, pointing out the enlarged areas governing aggression and the shrunken centres of empathy. No other child has ever been trained, so carefully and lovingly, to see himself as a serial killer.

There is something fascinating about stories of evil children. For Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin grew from a kind of worst-case-scenario thinking - this is every would-be parent's worst nightmare. But for me the fascination arises from the possibility of remediation, the lurking hints that these compulsive liars, these thieves and killers, have some core that is redeemable. According to Mary Rubio, Chester's classmates at school recalled that they "loved 'to get him going' because he created such a lively uproar. Children teased and tormented him because he would react angrily to provocations and retaliate by lunging at offenders, and his clumsy attempts to catch his skinny, fast-footed classmates created a comic delight. They all said, independently, as adults looking back, that he was by nature a 'loner.' He wanted desperately to be accepted, but was socially inept and ostracized." With parents who both suffered from debilitating mental illnesses, Chester seems all too likely to have inherited some kind of personality disorder.

But when I read that passage, describing a boy with a life of failure and criminal disgrace ahead of him, I think not that he needs a good spanking, nor even that he just needs love and affection, but rather that there must have been some way to teach him the things those other children all knew without being taught - that the empathy that springs up so readily in some might still be a plant that can be cultivated in others. Unable to crack the code of social interaction as a boy, Chester was later unable to rely on social cues to restrain the impulses that most of us learn to curb on the playground. He had been told that stealing was wrong - he knew that if he were caught he'd be punished - but is it possible that with the right kind of social skills, he might have learned to acquire what the rest of us think of as a conscience?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Vegephobe

I don't like plants.

For a long time, I thought that I was merely incompetent with them - they invariably wither and die under my care, so I've learned not to throw good money after bad. But that's not it. I actually don't like them. (Perhaps they perceive my dislike and shrivel up not so much from dehydration as from emotional thirst.)

First of all, I'm suspicious of how much water they drink. I've been pouring a cup of water on my hardy mums every night, and though they are visibly drying up and dying, I refuse to believe that they actually require more. (They're like Dan on Survivor, shoveling in the rice and corn and worrying about waking up hungry at midnight.) All the other potted mums in the neighbourhood are still orange and yellow, not the crispy brown shade mine have gradually turned. I am starting to suspect that my neighbours are replacing their mums every couple of weeks to keep them looking fresh.

The outdoor plants I can tolerate, though - they, at least, are in their natural environment. My beef is with the indoor plants. I received two of these as housewarming gifts. One I actually almost like: it's by the front door, which is almost as good as being outside. The other, however, epitomizes everything that is wrong with indoor plants: it's a leatherette treasure chest full of dark green leaves. For awhile it sat by the kitchen sink (which at least made it easy to water), but then I had the brainstorm of moving it into the bathroom, where I can glare at it each night before bed.

Interior designers love to bring the outdoors in (a decorating strategy I always trace for my students in Anne of Green Gables, where Anne's influence over Marilla is measured by the steady encroachment of apple blossoms into her bedroom, first in a cracked vase on the bureau and eventually on a dainty wallpaper). I myself prefer to keep the outdoors out. I would not have wanted to be one of the homeowners on that early episode of Trading Spaces where crazy Genevieve hung an entire bedroom wall with moss. (When the unfortunate couple was led in, blindfolded, they wrinkled their noses at the smell.)

The real problem with plants, I think, is the leaves. Cut flowers I can enjoy, especially the big Gerbera daisies with their sturdy, leafless stems. But the profusion of leaves in a potted plant always strikes me as vaguely depressing. Leaves are such blatant reminders of mortality: they dry up, fall off, turn yellow or brown - or, alternatively, they grow grotesquely huge, dwarfing the still-pretty flowers they surround. Leaves are a no-win situation.

My bathroom plant has managed to survive nearly two months of my abuse and neglect. It gets a dousing of water every three or four days, enough to keep it a kind of limbo between death and life. If it finally manages to die, I'll have a nice spot for some knick-knacks. Not candles, though - I hate those too, but that's another post.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Secret to Happiness

I'm marking rebuttal essays this weekend, which means that my students have mined the internet for ignorant, illogical, and ill-expressed opinions with which they disagree. In the last two days I have read editorials arguing that university students shouldn't have to take science courses (they're too hard), that fat children should be removed from their parents' custody, and that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry because marriage has historically been developed by and for fertile women, so that they can know who the father of their children is.

Amid this sludge, however, I've discovered one apparently reputable psychology researcher who has stumbled upon the secret to happiness: hard manual labour. Models of a happy life include nomads in hunter-gatherer societies and Caroline Ingalls. Their secret? Plenty of arduous, complex physical tasks done with their hands (the hands are important) and directly linked to survival. To get the biggest happiness-charge, we need not only physical exercise, but purposeful exercise that involves anticipation (of, say, a delicious meal), challenge, and tangible results.

Modern life affords almost no opportunities for this kind of activity. I would say, from personal experience, that walking a treadmill engages the pleasure-centers of the brain in almost no noticeable way. Athletic competition is more purposeful and, I've heard, is considered enjoyable by those with rudimentary eye-hand coordination. But scoring a goal against an opponent is a very different thing from cooperating with a neighbour to trap a wild boar that will feed the tribe for a week.

I am always skeptical of arguments based on a combination of biological determinism and a rosy idealization of the primitive past. Throw the word "wired" in there and you've pretty much lost me. I can imagine that hunting for survival might provide some mood-enhancing jolts of adrenaline, but I'm less convinced that scrubbing laundry by hand with lye soap would chemically rewire my brain for happiness. That said, there is a certain plausibility to the idea that hard physical labour can promote happiness so long as it is meaningful, productive, and complex. Laying bricks for $1/hour doesn't qualify - but apple-picking might.

It's the difference between packing and unpacking. Packing up the house for the move last August was tedious beyond belief, but it was relieved by joyous bouts of unpacking. Whenever I move I'm the same way: I've learned to invest in good shoes because I'm on my feet constantly, sleeping in brief five-hour spurts before whirling into action again. Within twenty-four hours I am in the nailing-pictures-on-the-wall stage, simultaneously restless and deeply content. There is something satisfying in working hard and seeing the results of your work take physical form.

I can imagine that the cooks and the crafters feel this way too - and the gardeners. But I will never be one of them. For better or worse, I am the girl who shops at the craft bazaar, not the craft-supply store. I watch the Food Network and read home renovation magazines, but at the end of the day I'd much rather write a blog post about the pleasures of manual labour than actually engage in any.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Huh.

Now that the fall television season is underway, I've been enjoying the Global television commercial-break series of "Huh" snippets - things like, "The actor who plays the Haitian on Heroes grew up in ... Haiti. Huh." So I thought I'd do my own snippety post of things that make me go, "Huh."

*****

A newspaper article this morning claims that the Conservative victory in the federal election was determined over the Thanksgiving weekend. Polls last week showed that the Liberals were narrowing the gap, but by Sunday night, the polls indicated a shift blue-ward. (In Canada, blue is right-wing and red is left. Go figure.) Pundits say that the election was settled over Thanksgiving dinner as people talked through the issues and came to a decision. All I can say is poor Jack Layton - stuck at the kitchen table while the election was being decided just one room over around the dining room table.

*****

If you owned this poster and planned to put it up on a wall in your house, which room would you put it in?


If you said, "The baby's nursery, of course, where I can pair it with a disco-ball and a magic-mushroom nightlight for an Alice-in-Wonderland-goes-psychedelic theme," then you are exactly the mom Cookie magazine is apparently aimed at.


After blinking dazedly at the photo spread, I looked for an online equivalent and found this:


Same room, but no magic mushrooms and no Angela Davis print. What do you think happened? Burglars? A delayed-onset bout of sanity?

*****

Bub and Pie were playing with marbles in the living room this morning when Bub complained that the "chairs" were in his way. I tugged the two ottomans aside, but then realized that I had foiled his plan to lounge across the ottomans (ottomen?) while shooting marbles from an elevated position.

"Ugh," Bub grunted as he struggled to move them back into place, "that witch moved my chairs!"

Monday, October 13, 2008

Playdate Paralysis

The Background: Ten days ago, I took the kids for a playdate to the home of Ashley, the bookkeeper from hubby's office whose two youngest children are the same age and gender as mine. The playdate had been arranged as follows: I bumped into Ashley at the school and invited her to bring the kids to my house; she replied that she doesn't have a vehicle during the day and invited us to hers. After a successful morning, I dragged my screaming children to the car while Ashley assured them they were welcome to return the following week.

The Sequel: A few days later, I realized that I had double-booked myself: Bub had an O.T. assessment scheduled for the same morning as our return visit to Ashley's house. I dealt with the situation by making several resolutions to call Ashley, none of which I fulfilled until the last minute. I did call to cancel, but not until the morning of our scheduled playdate and without, I fear, sufficient expressions of regret. "We'll do it another time," she assured me, but did not name a day.

The Dilemma: Friday mornings are really the only time I have available to get together. Do I call and arrange a date, or do I wait for Ashley to call me?

Reasons Not to Call:

  • It's her house. It's no use inviting her to our house, because she has no transportation. I could suggest a weekend get-together, but she has indicated that their weekends are really busy.
  • The vagueness of her "We'll do it again sometime" might indicate (a) that she's offended at the lacksadaisical way I canceled our previous engagement; (b) that she didn't actually like me that much to begin with; and/or (c) that she invited us back the first time only in a desperate effort to assuage Bub's despair.
  • I called her last time. It's her turn.

Reasons to Call:
  • I'm the one who canceled our previous engagement, thus potentially conveying the (false) idea that (a) I didn't like her much; and/or (b) I agreed to the return visit only in a desperate effort to assuage Bub's despair.
  • My phone number isn't in the phone book. She could get it by calling hubby's office, of course, but it would require some extra effort.
  • I canceled our last playdate, which makes it my turn.

Other Relevant Information:
Ashley is, based on my observations after one playdate plus one office Christmas party, an ESFJ. She was popular in high school and describes herself as laid-back up to a point. It seems unlikely that she would write me off after a single canceled playdate, but it's also possible that I'm just not quite normal enough for her. It's also possible that Bub is not quite normal enough for her friendly, happy-go-lucky son Jake who looked on in evident astonishment as Bub melted down at the conclusion of our first playdate.

Welcome to the inside of my head. Aren't you glad you don't live here?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Then and Now


"I never look back, darling," Edna tells Mr. Incredible. "It distracts from the now." As laudable as her attitude might seem to self-help gurus, I'm not convinced that The Now is all it's cracked up to be. Sure, there are a few downsides to worrying about the future and regretting the past, but for me the idea of living in the present seems kind of ... one-dimensional. (Technically, I suppose, the term I'm looking for here is three-dimensional. But still. My point is that four dimensions are more dimensional than three.)

I spent hours last summer selecting paint colours, furniture, and floor coverings for my new home, but it was only when I moved in that I realized how ... 1970s all my choices turned out to be. I have shag carpets everywhere, dark brown curtains hanging from every window, and the yellow paint on my kitchen walls is only a shade more Tuscan than the buttercup-yellow curtains my mother hung on her kitchen windows when she moved into her brand-new house in 1977. My carefully selected couches are upholstered in a woven fabric that is uncannily similar to that of the couch I sat on to watch Sesame Street and Electric Company.

It's not just the house. It's the Meet-the-Teacher BBQ and P.D. days and packing lunches. When my children were infants I was blazing a new trail, but now that they're in school it's more clear: I've turned into my mother. And there's something so reassuring to me about the act of placing my feet carefully in her footsteps.

In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver reacts to her father's bankruptcy with the dismayed sense that there will be nothing at the end of her life that is the same as it was at the beginning. These days, we no longer expect to find ourselves surrounded, on our deathbeds, with familiar, well-worn objects. Our houses are disposable and our beds and tables even moreso. But that urge to preserve the past has always driven me to diarize, to preserve the past, to stretch the now like a thin piece of crepe so that the past shines through it and illuminates it.

Today I was blindsided by a sudden sense of panic. I reeled from a sense of impending betrayal, an almost physical sensation of pain. And then I remembered. It's the first of October - the tenth anniversary of this conversation. Thinking about that day doesn't hurt me anymore, but the pain is still there, a kind of companion to these fall days, a dark friend that lends a new dimension to the now.