Monday, April 27, 2009

My Town





I love it here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

All I Ever Wanted

Hubby and I have signed up for a marriage course at our church for the next eight weeks. Our pastor's husband is a great cook, and each session includes a full meal, including non-alcoholic girly drinks when we arrive, main course, and dessert served to each couple on a tray with tea and coffee. Plus, I get to force my husband to talk about his feelings for three hours every Friday night until June.

One of the assignments last night was to think of a, quote, special time in our marriage. This wasn't a go-in-the-corner-and-talk assignment - it was just a sit-in-your-seats-and-talk-for-five-minutes bit. That's how I know that hubby and I were not the only ones totally unable to recall a special time in our marriage within a five-minute period.

Part of the problem was a lack of clarity about the purpose of the exercise. Is it an attempt to revitalize the marriage by hearkening back to our dating days? I am a big proponent of that - one of my biggest incentives for going was the news that each couple would begin by explaining how they met. John Gottman claims that one measure of the health of a marriage is how much pleasure a couple takes in telling their story. I adore reliving the courtship days - but it seemed a bit pathetic, somehow, that when asked to recall a special time in our marriage our first instinct was to think of a time before we were married.

If we focus only on the time since the wedding, the natural candidate for a, quote, special time in our marriage would be a vacation. Hubby and I are somewhat impaired here since we have haven't really had a vacation since our honeymoon. But again I object to the premise. Vacations are fun, and much more easily remembered than ordinary day-to-day life, but I have always found them to be ever so slightly empty. There is the sightseeing, the forced and expensive fun, but nothing you do on vacation has much long-term meaning. This is most evident when you're a teenager vacationing with your family. Even the most mind-numbingly boring day of ordinary high-school life is alive with certain possibilities; each action has a ripple effect on a whole network of social relationships. Vacations are detached from all that, unless you happen to go to Italy with your high-school travel club, in which case you get the statue of David and all the glee and anguish of adolescent social interaction, just in a more impressive European setting.

Vacations are all very well in their place, but to me the fabric of a marriage has to be at home, in the dailiness of ordinary life. Of course, I can't really call to mind a special time in our marriage if by that I mean a completely ordinary time in our marriage. Maybe it was the day I poured hubby a really big bowl of Rice Krispies. It was a bedtime snack, and the box was almost empty, so I poured the whole thing in until the bowl was full to the brim and overflowing, and when hubby saw it I laughed so hard that to this day I occasionally ask him, "Do you remember the time I gave you a really big bowl of Rice Krispies?" and start cracking up all over again.

In the play Our Town, Emily Webb has the chance to relive a single day in her life. All her fellow graveyard inhabitants urge her not to do it, and when she will not be persuaded, the play's Narrator tells her to pick the most ordinary, insignificant day she can come up with. The experience will be far more painful than she realizes; he's trying to shelter her from the pain of regaining, for a moment, everything she has lost. But their advice is misguided. From the grave, it's not my trips to Italy I will miss, or even my days at the beach. It's oatmeal for breakfast and reading the newspaper, sitting at the table doing the crossword while my children pester me for crayons and Play-Doh. It's grading exams at the dining room table and meeting hubby for lunch at Coffee Culture. If my life were suddenly snatched away from me and I could have only one day of it back, I'd choose the most ordinary day of all, not to spare myself the pangs of longing but to cling on to the part of my life that was the most real.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Teflon

Since Good Friday, I've been brewing up a post on guilt - or lack thereof, perhaps, because guilt is something I very rarely feel. I've always been comforted by Mr. Bennet's conversation with Lizzie in Pride and Prejudice. Realizing that Lydia's elopement was caused primarily by his neglect, Mr. Bennet blames himself:

"You must not be too severe upon yourself," replied Elizabeth.

"You may well warn me against such an evil. Human nature is so prone to fall into it! No, Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough."

That has been exactly my experience of guilt: though I may experience it from time to time, it is transitory. I don't necessarily have to talk myself out of it, or do something to dispel it - I can just wait awhile and I find that it evaporates of its own accord.

But in spite of Mr. Bennet's ironic reflections on how prone human nature is to excessive guilt, I know that there are people who are habitually too severe upon themselves. My mother is one of them. In fact, one theory I have about the origins of my mental Teflon is that a lifetime of listening to my mother beating herself up about things that are not actually her fault has made me skeptical about the usefulness of guilt. (My other theory is that guilt levels are purely hereditary, and I got mine from my father.)

Related to my ability to deflect guilt is my ability to convince myself that my character flaws are actually strengths. In this case, my inborn resistance to guilt has a number of positive side effects. I do not have to engage in destructive guilt-avoidance practices like blaming the victim. I am not traumatized by or resentful of the guilt trips inflicted upon me by others. (Well, okay, I am traumatized and resentful, but surely not AS traumatized and resentful as I would be if I were more guilt-prone.) Of course, I also do not have the life-changing remorse that would allow me to emerge as a much better person ... but you can't have everything, can you?

The mental Teflon that protects me against guilt also has other uses. It convinces me that my tummy roll is actually invisible to the naked eye when concealed by a long shirt. It allows me to ignore the students falling asleep during my lectures so that I remember only the alert, engaged faces of the two students who spent the class doing something other than catching up on Facebook.

A bit of amateur dabbling in psychology suggests that these are fairly widespread traits. Most people consider themselves to be above-average drivers. Men, at least, habitually overestimate how attractive they are to the opposite sex. Selective awareness seems to be the norm rather than the aberration.

Perhaps what makes this quality feel unusual to me is that it's not the norm among MY people: the bloggers, the book-readers, the introspectors. My mother, I think, is more typical of people like us. She's the kind of person who, when someone is rude to her, dwells for hours on what she did to provoke it. She lives with a general free-floating guilt about not doing enough, and not doing what she does well enough. She is one of the most beautiful 65-year-old women you will ever see, but when she looks in the mirror, all she sees are jowls.

Which kind are you? Guilt-proof or guilt-prone? And where do you think those traits come from? Is it in our DNA or the product of our upbringing?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Portents

By the time I noticed the conversation, Bub was in what Bridget Jones would call full autowitter: "... and there's Guilmon, and Terriermon, and Renemon! And there's Kabuterimon and Megakabuterimon..." The recipient of this monologue about Digimon (digital monsters) was a girl who looked about nine or ten years old. As soon as she could, she extracted herself from the conversation and joined her brother on the swings, where moments later I heard the two of them trading "mons" back and forth. "That's so retarded!" the girl sneered.

"So, you spend your Saturday afternoons hanging around the park bullying five-year-olds," I said to her. "Wow, you're so cool!"

Actually, I said nothing, but I prepared sarcastic remarks so that I'd have them at the ready if her mockery came within Bub's notice.

*****

We were getting ready to leave church when Anna rushed out. "I have to say goodbye to Bub!" she cried, blonde curls bouncing as she leaned over Pie's carseat to tell him goodbye properly.

Anna is in Bub's class at school, a just-turned-five junior kindergartener, and when her mother asked her the other day about Marshall, another little boy in her class, Anna scornfully replied, "He's not my boyfriend! Bub is my boyfriend!"

*****

At kindergarten pick-up the other day, a little boy came over with a skinned knee. Bub was most solicitous. "Maybe you need a Band-Aid!" he suggested. (Though not addicted to Band-Aids anymore, Bub is still a firm believer in their efficacy.) Devin thought he'd be okay without a Band-Aid.

"Do you know what happens when you hurt your knee?" Bub asked. "It turns into a scab, and then the scab comes off and it's all better!" This is recently acquired knowledge, applicable to many life situations. I'm pleased to see my son tailoring his knowledge-sharing to the needs of the recipient.

*****

"High-five!" Derek hollers, running up to Bub as we exit the school lot. Bub slaps his upraised hand, and as we head toward the car we hear the thudding of running feet behind us. "Another high-five!" Derek shouts again, darting in front of us to get in one last farewell before we go.

*****

All the professionals at Bub's placement meeting agree: he should go on to Grade One. He should be with an E.A. (emphatically), but in a Grade One classroom. I know that he is ready academically, though perhaps not behaviorally or socially. What bothers me is that most of Bub's friendships are with the junior kindergarten kids, who hail him as one of their own. The SK kids are kind, but warier. They notice his quirks, whereas the younger grade is too young and inexperienced to care.

One rationale for moving Bub up a grade is that keeping him back only delays the inevitable: eventually, his peers will all be old enough to notice that he's different. A more optimistic rationale recognizes that Bub is rapidly closing the gap between himself and his peers: it would be senseless to hold him back because of a few mild quirks that he is rapidly overcoming. My concern is that he falls somewhere in between these two interpretations, that he is capable of fitting in but would do so much more easily if he were the oldest kid in the class rather than the youngest.

If I knew that another year of kindergarten were the right thing for Bub I would fight for it, even against the advice of his teacher, principal, and resource worker. But I don't know - so I signed on the dotted line, agreeing to a placement in a Grade One classroom. I even bought the official graduation t-shirt. The propaganda has already started in the classroom - the SKs are being groomed for next year, for the big leap up into the world of desks and worksheets. So far Bub thinks it sounds a lot like camp. I haven't yet told him otherwise.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Is This Thing Still On?

For most of my adult life I've assumed that I have certain inherent personality traits: optimism, resilience, a degree of creativity. But it turns out that really all that time I was just healthy.

A month ago I was driving home from work with a bagful of spring clothes for myself and the Pie, and I was brewing up a post about the joy of wearing things that look like candy. I used to have these drop earrings that looked exactly like pieces of Gold Rush gum, only in pink, purple, and blue as well as yellow. (Where did those earrings go? I certainly never threw them out.) The half-hour country drive between work and home affords plenty of time for mental composition, so I wrote the post in my head: One of the joys of having a daughter, I reflected, is that I have a good excuse to wear candy-clothes. Pie likes to wear matching outfits (colours, really - I have not yet succumbed to the mother-daughter clothing vortex of doom), so when I'm buying her sets of 3T capris and t-shirts for the summer it's easy to throw in a raspberry-pink ruffly shirt for me. I didn't always appreciate the pink side of girls' clothing, but now I'm a convert. Especially in springtime I like to plunge myself into juicy shades of lime and berry.

Thus far had I gotten in my composition process when I arrived home, but then life took over: I had to pick up Bub from kindergarten, buy groceries and put them away, slice up chicken breasts for supper and stir-fry them with korma sauce. Then there was all the clean-up: rinse the dishes, wipe the counters, bathe the children and tuck them into bed. The fact that I casually do all these things every evening is not always as astonishing to me as it should be. Each day requires gargantuan amounts of energy, organization, and discipline. And at around 8:00 pm that night, my energy fell away from me, and it didn't come back for about three weeks.

It was only the flu, though I like to call it "the influenza" because it sounds much more impressive. It was all the usual stuff: fever, achiness, coughing. But what I wasn't prepared for was how totally it obliterated my personality.

The physical symptoms weren't that bad: they were not unpleasant enough, by themselves, to warrant much more than a few days in bed and a nightly mug of Neo Citron. But the psychological symptoms were terrible. It was as if all the beauty were drained from the world. I was not sad or depressed, but I was incapable of registering pleasure in anything from the sunny weather to the Saturday-morning crossword. When, two weeks later, I glanced at the yellow cowbell on my bedside table and felt that familiar flicker of pleasure at its colour I was jolted by the strangeness of the sensation. It was like sitting down to do a math assignment after a long summer holiday, that feeling of exercising mental muscles that had long been out of commission.

It's taken me awhile to come back to my blog because I needed to be myself again for awhile before I could slip back into that comfortable illusion of being me. It's easy to rationalize away that stolid, unimaginative sick person I was a few weeks ago as a temporary aberration, to identify my real self as the norm from which my sick self temporarily departed. But it's harder to shake the realization that much of what I think of as essential to who I am is really just a physiological side effect of a healthy state over which I have no control.