Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bub and Pie: A Sampler

After all the turkey and stuffing, shortbread and Nanaimo bars, I find myself mutely staring down the barrel of this blog. Little buds of potential posts – Scroogish rants against Christmas clutter, deep meditations on the nature of family – keep withering on the vine. My metaphors are mixing indiscriminately; my brain is a sludgy Yuletide pudding (please, somebody douse me with brandy and light a match).

So in honour of my 400th post – and in an attempt to break out of my longest dry spell in 20 months of blogging – I offer these non-posts, labeled by category.

Academe, On Writing: It is observably true that teaching grammar to college students makes their writing worse, not better. Nevertheless, I am even less enchanted than I expected with the new regime of grammar-free writing courses. At least when we were covering comma splices and dangling participles students felt like they were learning something. Now they sigh and shuffle their way through the class, halfheartedly examining writing samples and palpably wondering how all these make-work activities will actually improve their essays. Can you tell how excited I am to start teaching again in January?

Autism: I love the way Bub is always surprised by the flash of recognition that accompanies episodic memory. The day after a friend’s birthday party I asked him at breakfast, “What was your favourite part?”

Bub demurred. “We’ll tell that after we eat some cereal.” But a moment later an idea came to him. “My favourite part was ... watching the Backyardigans video!”

“What about the part where you and Geister were hitting each other with balloons?”

Bub froze in astonishment as my words called up an answering echo in his consciousness. “Oh yeah! Geister took my hand and said, ‘Are you all right Bub?’”

It’s still new and fresh to him, this facility for replaying experiences, the astonishing ability to take the past and make it happen again in the privacy of our own neural synapses.

Bloggity Blog: After a week or so of not blogging, I have reached the conclusion that living my life (instead of writing about it) is overrated. Yes, I’m reading more books and spending more time with my family, but there’s a kind of enveloping dullness, a bone-level boredom that I don’t feel when I’m hatching posts and checking comments.

Bookish: My Christmas reading has consisted of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris (a book I chose because Veronica Mitchell said Fadiman’s writing style was almost indistinguishable from mine) and A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. Reading the first was an oddly narcissistic experience (from which I concluded that I use a lot of big words and rely heavily upon dashes and parenthetical expressions); reading the second was both moving and entertaining, in part because Jacobs is very open about the frequency with which he Googles himself to see what bloggers are saying about his books. (Hi A.J.!)

Change the World: What she said.

Dear Diary, Nothing More Than Feelings: (Sample entry, 1986-1987) “Jeff, Jeff, Jeff! When will I cry my last tear over you?”

Every Day, Parenting: The fighting, the fighting, it wears me out. The spoon that sneaks out not-so-innocently to tap a brother’s shoulder; the lean that not-so-innocently becomes a full-scale shove; the grabbing and screaming and tattling and biting. Pie’s newest trick is to glom onto Bub, mouth open, with a mélange of roaring and eating noises. He screams, I pull her off, and she darts out a hand to snatch an imaginary hunk of flesh. “Num num num num,” she growls as she pops it into her mouth, prompting a fresh outcry from poor cannibalized Bub. We are still very far from the point where Bub will be able to understand – much less implement – my advice to just ignore her.

Faith: Why am I so fascinated by the story of Tamar? I don’t know.

Family Ties, Random Theories: My family is not a club. Have you noticed how some families seem to have a strong sense of group identity? They refer to themselves as a collective entity, usually by last name: “The Fadimans are all closet copy-editors.” “A Murray would never let a snowstorm get in the way of a good time.” These family clubs may or may not be inclusive of outsiders, but they necessarily incorporate a set of rituals through which the quirks and traditions of family life can be celebrated. The Club seems to be more common in families with three or more children, or where there are common traits such as bookishness or reckless athleticism that help supply a group identity. My family, by contrast, has always seemed more like a loose collection of individuals. We love each other and see each other regularly, but we don’t feel the need to wear our family identity like a badge.

Kid Culture: I finally saw an old re-run of Blue’s Clues featuring Steve instead of Joe. I have to say, I can’t really see the appeal. After all the blog posts I’ve read from women lusting after him, I was expecting Steve to be ... I don’t know ... bigger.

Me Myself and I, Memory Lane: It was 6 pm, Christmas Eve, 1982. I was drying the supper dishes and talking incessantly about my deep, obsessive need for a Pac-Man mini arcade game. What did I think I was going to accomplish? It was Christmas Eve, the stores were closed – if my Pac-Man mini arcade (improbably) wasn’t already hidden somewhere in the house, then no amount of whining or begging would change that. What an unpleasant 11-year-old I was.

My Better Half, Seasons: See what a nice husband I have: he spent several hours last week going out three separate times to get lights for the tree. The first string was too short. On the second trip, he succumbed to a mad impulse to buy a cone-shaped net that would disperse the lights evenly over the tree. That he undertook a third trip speaks well of his character, especially given that we had two strings of perfectly functional coloured lights from last year sitting right there in the living room. (This is our year for white lights and angel; next year we’ll be back to hubby’s preference; coloured lights and star.)

Personality Types, Pop Culture, Sill-lah: The whole problem with Star Wars, Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith is that Anakin Skywalker is an SP – impulsive, rebellious, emotional – while Darth Vader clearly is (and always has been) an NT – cold, intelligent, controlled. Despite Yoda’s warnings against uncontrolled emotion, Darth Vader is not a villain driven by anger: he is a ruthless strategic thinker, someone whose path to the dark side was paved with arrogance rather than impulsivity. For a plausible and convincing transformation from friend to foe, see Smallville’s Lex Luthor.

Small Town: Old house or new house? I still don’t know. Since Christmas, though, I’ve been in a new house frame of mind, mostly because cupboard and closet space have suddenly become major priorities.

So Cute, The Little Girl: The Pie was delighted to find a Kinder Surprise egg in her goodie bag at a friend’s birthday party on Friday. Saturday morning she carried the bag around possessively for a little while, then disappeared to the basement. The distinctive sound of unwrapping foil alerted me to her plan. “I think she’s eating her Kinder egg,” I told hubby. He went down to investigate. At first he saw nothing – but then he heard a tell-tale “mmmm” sound emerging from a fort we had made out of a large box. Inside, Pie was devouring her egg as fast as she could, considering it easier to apologize than to ask permission.

Thinky: Ouch. Can’t.

Top Ten: (posts of 2007)
My Myers-Briggs Analysis of Harry Potter
Mommy Report Card
My Family Values
Harry Potter and the Moral Ambiguities
Uneven Parallels
Hurts So Good
Monday Mission: Verse
Reason, Intuition, and My Plans for This Evening and Curiouser and Curiouser
Why All Moms Really Do Go To Heaven

True Confessions: I think I enjoyed Christmas more back when it was all about me.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Thursday, December 20, 2007

My Nerves

I am frightened out of my wits; and have such tremblings, such flutterings all over me such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day.

It is not a new or original idea that Jane Austen was just a teensy bit uncharitable towards poor Mrs. Bennet. Yes, she is a criminally embarrassing mother, every teenage girl’s nightmare, but her anxieties are real and her obsession with marrying off her daughters seems far more reasonable and realistic than Mr. Bennet’s cheerful indifference.

I’ve been thinking sympathetically of Mrs. Bennet’s much-maligned “nerves” this week as I have coped with all manner of tremblings and flutterings, simply because Bub has had a fever, headache, and earache on and off for four days. I can’t imagine what I would do if my daughter eloped with an impoverished militia officer, because all it takes is a fairly minor childhood illness to have me clutching the counter to steady myself while the room spins and lurches.

There was a certain sweetness to the first days of illness. Saturday and Sunday hubby and I spent mostly on the couch, snuggled up in pyjamas with feverish foreheads resting heavily on our shoulders. We watched Frosty the Snowman and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, put up the Christmas tree, ordered the Festive Special from Swiss Chalet. By Monday, the pleasant languor had worn off, replaced by worry. Why didn’t Bub recover? Did he need antibiotics? And if so how would we get them down his throat now that he knows how to gargle?

For a day or two, I can enjoy the transformed personality of the sick child. In illness, children are affectionate, immobile, heavy-limbed. After four days, though, I began to sharply miss the mischievous boy who roars at his sister and races excitedly into the kitchen to tell me that our cat has just strolled into the living room. So it was with relief and recognition this morning that I said “Cheese!” as Bub happily held up a tape measure, tape extended, then clicked the button so that the tape flew back in with a satisfying snap. I had contemplated buying him one of those kid-tough digital cameras for Christmas, but I’m glad I didn’t: when he’s happy and healthy, a tape measure is all he needs.

Sweet, sleepy Pie.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

At Six O'Clock This Morning

Bub: I'm not sleeping anymore. I'm awake!

Me: Umhmm.

Bub: Mama, it's not time for sleeping. It's time to go downstairs and get some cereal.

Me: I'm sleeping right now, Bub.

Bub: You're not sleeping, Mama! You already ate all the sleeps!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Old vs. New

The list has narrowed (for now, at least) to two options: (1) the Old House, built in 1895, or (2) the New House, which would be built for us by a builder who is just starting out but has already established a reputation in town for good workmanship. According to the builder, the house would be ready by summer (though this speedy schedule has raised an eyebrow or two among my friends – ought it not to take longer than six months to go from purchasing a lot to moving in?).

Here are how the two compare:

Price: Same. The asking price for the Old House is higher than what we would pay for the New House, but it seems likely that we could get it for considerably less. In either case, we will be maxing out what we can afford for the first year; any additional expenses would likely be postponed for at least that long.

Size: Same. In the Old House, the living space is spread out over two floors; in the New House that square footage would include a basement rec room. Both houses are large enough that we wouldn’t need to move again.

Location: The Old House is on a beautiful tree-lined street full of old churches and century homes, two blocks away from library, restaurants, and shops. It’s on a hill so there’s an amazing view of the town from all the windows. The high school is five blocks away, and the current elementary school is even closer (though there’s some talk of closing the elementary school and moving it to the same location as the high school). The New House would be in a small subdivision backing onto farmland a five minutes’ drive from town. A park is going in a block away from where we would build. The train tracks run past the subdivision; someone who lives there told me he noticed the train the day he moved in but hasn’t paid much attention to it since.

Parking: The Old House has a narrow driveway without a garage or even a shed (though there’s room to put in a small one-car garage at some point); the New House would have a two-car garage.

Kitchen: The Old House has a pleasant kitchen with newish cupboards and ceramic floors. Storage space is adequate but not plentiful and would be reduced if we put in a dishwasher (currently there is no dishwasher). The fridge and stove are in what must once have been a pantry: there is no counter-top directly beside the stove. There is an island that seats two but no room for a kitchen table. In the summer, meals could be taken in a large, fully enclosed porch immediately beside the kitchen. At some point, we might be able to winterize the porch and integrate it with the kitchen; in the meantime our winter meals would be eaten in the dining room. The New House would have a large eat-in kitchen with anything I wanted in it (pantry, desk, etc.).

Bedrooms: The Old House has multiple oddly-sized bedrooms filled with quirkiness: there is a hallway connecting them, but many of them also have connecting doors. There are few actual closets, but all sorts of cupboards and cubby-holes. It’s a house that seems designed for games of hide and seek. The New House would have a walk-in closet in the master bedroom (vs. a small closet supplemented by a wardrobe in the old house).

Bathrooms: The bathrooms in the Old House have been completely updated and are very cute. The New House would have an ensuite in the master bedroom.

Yard: The Old House is on a corner, and it has a yard enclosed by a hedge rather than a fence. It’s not a bad size, but considerably smaller than what we would get in the new house. There are very large trees at the corners of the lot, but not close enough to provide direct shade for the yard, which contains some smaller trees and shrubs. The New House would have whatever landscaping/fencing we chose to add, but would have that new-subdivision bareness for the first few years.

Air Conditioning: The Old House has no A/C or forced air heat, but I’ve been told that an air exchanger can be installed in the attic at roughly the same cost as installing a central air unit. The New House would have central air.

Other Features: The Old House has large rooms and high ceilings; it has all the architectural details you would imagine in a Victorian home: fireplaces, wood beams and panels, scroll-work on the doors and windows. There are built-in benches in the family room along with a wood-burning fireplace. There are storage spaces in the basement and attic, along with many quirky nooks and cupboards. The hot-water radiators are topped with thick wooden shelves suitable for displaying books or knick-knacks. The New House would have a laundry/mudroom off the garage and a games room in the basement suitable for a plasma TV and surround sound system (someday), along with a designated area for war-gaming.

My parents moved to a new house on the outskirts of town when I was six. The Old House feels to me like the house I always fantasized about living in; the New House feels comfortable and real. For three days last week I had virtually decided to build, then the pendulum swung the other way and for the last 48 hours I’ve been leaning toward the Old House. There’s no rush to make an offer (big old homes don’t sell quickly in this particular small town), but if I want to get the lot I’ve got my eye on, we should probably decide that sooner rather than later. More to the point, I’d like to make a decision so I can finally get some sleep.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Burgermeister's Comin' to Town

Forget Scrooge – just call me Burgermeister Meisterburger.

Bub was watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town yesterday, a special that I remember selecting as a childhood favourite because it explains the origins of all the Christmas traditions. “The only thing anybody judges you on in this town is how many chores you do and how clean your stockings are,” a child laments, rubbing his stockings on a washboard and explaining how to wring them out and hang them by the fire to dry. (It’s fortunate for me, I reflected, that I don’t live in that town, since chore-doing and stocking-cleanliness are not particularly strong suits for me.)

The story focuses on the redemptive power of toys: whenever Kris Kringle finds himself in a bind, he wins over the opposition with a carefully selected gift. A dolly charms the future Mrs. Kringle; a wooden train tames the threatening Winter Warlock. The only one immune to such gestures is the villain of the piece, Burgermeister Meisterburger, mayor of the little Germanic hamlet in which the story is laid. He outlaws all playthings, dooming anyone found in possession of a toy to imprisonment in the dungeon.

As I watched the show yesterday, I found myself alarmingly in sympathy with the Burgermeister. The hand-carved trains and dollies distributed by Kringle are a far cry from the Bratz dolls of today (though I suppose there must be a generous amount of lead in the paint), but my opposition to toys lies not in the evils of gender-specific made-in-China merchandise, nor even in the mountain of clutter left in the wake of Bub's birthday (toys for four-year-olds being universally composed of at least 150 small parts). My Burgermeisterish leanings arise instead from a more general sense that toys are essentially evil, in and of themselves. If you do a historical study, I think you'll find that the doctrine of Original Sin was developed after the invention of the Toy.

The theory behind toys is that they occupy the children, allowing the parents to blog, make dinner, or talk on the phone. That’s not the part I’m against. It’s the part where the toys are used solely for the purpose of (a) hitting siblings on the head, (b) making a mess on the floor, or (c) swiping (i.e. grabbing toy from sibling’s hand, running away saying “You’ll never find it now!” and throwing it down the stairs). I’ve noticed that when Bub has a friend over, they usually either play independently or fight over toys, but on occasions when he’s been in a relatively toy-free environment he is capable of inventing far more imaginative, interactive games. Yes, these games usually involve a lot of running around and invariably end in tears, but right up until the point that someone loses an eye, they’re enormously fun.

There’s no take-home lesson here – I don’t suppose for a moment that I can or even seriously want to reduce my family’s dependence on toys. But I did find the dark, toyless streets of Sombertown to be startlingly appealing yesterday in their austere serenity.

The ultimate indignity.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why I Haven't Posted Much Lately

I'm moving to a small town.

Technically I've known this for a year and a half, but there's something about house-hunting that makes it seem real.

I'm moving to a place where people on the sidewalks smile and nod instead of averting their eyes politely, the way I'm used to. I'm moving to a place where you can choose two houses to tour and discover that one of them is across the street from your husband's boss and the other is owned by his secretary's cousin. I'm moving to a place where the new subdivision, backing onto farmland on the outskirts of town, is a five-minute drive from the downtown core.

I'm excited about it. I think.

I am also rendered nearly postless by the visions of floor plans dancing in my head. It's not the essays I'm marking or even the head cold I'm fighting that's keeping me to a few meagre posts per week - it's the uncontrollable urge to write about things like hardwood floors and ceramic tile. If I were going to write a post, I don't think I could help asking questions like, if YOU were buying a house, would you pick the 150-year-old Victorian mansion with a postage stamp for a back yard or the brand-new two-storey with ensuite bathroom and a games room in the basement? And if you happened to be looking at floor plans, would you want a living room AND a family room, or just a "Great Room"? And which is better - a big eat-in kitchen or a formal dining room? A house that's well within budget but a bit too cramped or one that we can stay in until the kids go to college? A practical side-split with no scope for the imagination or a century home with no air conditioning?

This is what the inside of my head looks like right now, only buzzing buzzing buzzing. Read the above paragraph three times fast, in the middle of the night when you're supposed to be sleeping, and you'll know what it's like to be me.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


You wouldn’t have had any difficulty picking him out, if you’d been there. He was the kid who clutched a book securely with one hand through the entire Christmas pageant.

He was also the kid who held his battery-operated “candle” up to one eye instead of raising it aloft, scowling at it thoughtfully as he examined the way the light burst from the centre of the bulb.

He was the kid who turned his tambourine into a frame, holding it up to his neighbours’ faces so that they were captured in the red plastic semi-circle.

He was the kid who was once too shy to leave for Sunday School without clutching his mother’s hand, yet today managed to move on and off the stage six different times without crying, panicking, or breaking away from the group.

He was the kid who held up the two “L’s” in H-O-LL-Y, watching his neighbours carefully to ensure that he raised and lowered his letters in perfect synchronization.

He was the kid whose face lit up when his sister walked onstage with three other two-year-olds, clutching a rope and wearing a black plastic bowler hat. He was the kid who laughed supportively, though without comprehension, when the Mayor gestured to the toddlers saying, “I’m here with my Press Corp.”

He was the kid who broke into a shy, delighted grin when the children’s hip-hop routine was met with a roar of applause.

He was the kid whose mother couldn’t stop brushing away happy tears.

That's my boy.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

This Week's Homeschool Curriculum: Science

With classes over for the semester, I've been adding a homeschooling component to my interactions with the children. Although Pie is only two, I firmly believe that it's never too early to begin establishing basic scientific principles. This week we have focused on physics, particularly the law of gravity and the properties of solids and liquids. The following Scientific Facts have been emphasized:

  • Gravity: Snow cannot be made to go back up to the sky.
  • Solids: Toast is a solid. If it is cut into quarters it cannot be made to readhere.
  • Liquids: Milk is a liquid. Once it has been added to the bowl, the cereal cannot be returned to its previous dry, crispy state.

In response to these lessons, the children designed the following Scientific Experiment:

Purpose: To test the usefulness of crying and throwing temper tantrums in altering the basic laws of physics.

Method: Whenever snow/cut toast/soggy cereal was encountered, tantrums were thrown.

Observations: Tantrums had no observable effect on the temperature or depth of snow. With sufficient tantrum-throwing, however, researchers were able to alter the composition of both toast and cereal. Although the cut toast/soggy cereal could not be restored to its original state, additional toast and/or cereal could be procured.

Conclusion: Tantrum-throwing appears to have had little effect on the weather - so far. Further investigation is necessary. While tantrum-throwing did not alter the properties of toast and cereal, it did prove quite effective in altering parental behaviour. With adequate conditioning, parents can be trained to seek permission before irrevocably altering food items designed for consumption by the research team.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Monday, December 03, 2007

Winter Dreams

In imagination, she is brave and strong. “I’m going to hug Santa,” she promised on the way to the annual children’s Christmas party. Put on by the smallest affiliate college of the university where I teach, this event is exactly the kind of holiday tradition I used to envy in other, more fortunate children: there are crafts and cookies, a few half-hearted Christmas carols, and then at four o’clock Santa himself arrives with carefully selected gifts for each child. These are no token bits of plastic: they are real, battery-operated toys. Last year we got the Leap Pad Fridge Farm; this year it was a light-up game of Whack-a-Mole, complete with four mallets.

Pie was excited. She understands about Santa this year, and her excitement about presents is no longer confined to simply the wrapping paper and boxes – alongside the light of Christmas magic there is a distinct gleam of avarice in her eyes. She envisioned herself striding up to Santa, snuggling in his lap, conversing readily and audibly about what she wanted for Christmas. In her gleeful anticipation I caught a glimpse of my own winter dreams of gliding smoothly and effortlessly across the ice, unbothered by loose laces or cold toes, certainly not huddling miserably by the side of the arena, begging my dad for fifty cents with which to buy a styrofoam cup of scalding hot water flavoured with a thin bit of chocolate syrup.

In the end she was braver and stronger than I, or even she, expected. She ventured across the stage unaccompanied, all the way up to the cozy armchair where Santa sat chortling. There she paused, stricken all at once by the impracticability of her plans, the sheer impossibility of climbing into this big red man’s lap. Her eyes were round and terrified but she did not bolt: she accepted her gift gravely and then tiptoed across to the other side of the stage, where I stood waiting.