Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Test Subject

Back when Bub was little more than a year old, I stumbled across an article about toddler behaviour. Toddlers are scientists, the writers claimed, and much of their behaviour - defiance, tantrum-throwing, boundary-testing - should really be understood as a kind of scientific experiment, with their mothers being the primary test subjects. Toddlers carefully observe their parents, assessing their changing responses to a variety of stimuli. Throw food on the floor once, and watch mama laugh as if it's a joke; throw it on the floor again, and watch mama frown warningly; throw it on the floor a third time, and watch mama lose her temper. Like all good scientists, toddlers take care to repeat their experiments under a variety of conditions so as to control all the variables and attain the most reliable results.

Bub didn't experience the terrible twos in the quite the same way other children do: he had so little receptive language that defiance was not really an option for him (you have to understand a request before you can willfully disobey it). But I am beginning to see that spirit of scientific inquiry developing in him now that he is four. He has outgrown the emotional volatility of his toddler days, and thus his investigation is all the more detached and objective.

Take, for instance, the other morning. Pie was eating some applesauce. She had loaded up her spoon but decided partway through to switch to the hand-to-mouth method. Her spoon dangled precipitously over the side of the table, a glob of applesauce slowly forming on the bottom into a big, fat drip. "In your mouth!" I coached, and Pie obediently stuffed her applesauce-laden fist into her mouth just as the glob finally detached and hit the floor.

As I jumped up for a paper towel, Bub carefully imitated my exasperated sigh. "Are you mad at Pie because she dripped the applesauce on the floor?" he inquired. "You should try saying, 'Please stop dripping the applesauce on the floor, Pie,'" he advised.

Each outburst of temper is carefully assessed. Bub guesses what emotion I'm feeling and then checks his intuition with me, often offering some helpful words of advice on how to handle my emotions more politely.

So I was not entirely surprised at his response this morning when Pie dropped an entire glass of orange juice (with extra pulp) into a soggy bowl of Special K cereal. As I leapt to sop up the mess, he looked up with that familiar expression of animated interest, his metaphorical pencil almost visibly poised over his metaphorical notepad. "Mama," he asked, "how are you feeling right now?"

He has a future as a clinical psychologist, that boy of mine.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What I've Been Doing

Mad guessed it: my new obsession with paint chips means that I am no longer obsessed with blogging. It turns out that my mind runs on two tracks at a time: on one track, I shop for groceries, grade exams, and pick up my kids from day-care; on the other track, which runs alongside the first one, I simultaneously do one other thing. Until recently, that other thing was blogging: I crafted posts in my head, thought about posts I had read, brooded over traffic, and relished the various kudos that came my way. Then I discovered paint chips. And now I find myself flipping through a mental fandeck as I go about my business, trying to combine the bits of conflicting advice I've received about paint into some kind of coherent whole.

For instance. Here is what I've learned about the science of paint-colour selection:

  • The colours people love the most on their walls are usually ones they hated on the chip. This means that when you go to the paint store, you should especially seek out the colours that give you a visceral reaction of nausea.
  • A good, safe choice is to use several shades of a single colour so that the rooms of your house flow together. Of course, what that means is that you may end up with a house in which every single room is yellow.
  • It's best to choose a palette of soft, neutral colours so that you can bring vivid colour into the room through fabrics and accents.
  • Don't be influenced by trends: pick the colours you love, the ones that make you feel good. If four shades of beige is not going to bring you joy, ignore the experts and go with what you like.
  • If you like a colour on the chip, go two shades lighter (unless it's a bright colour - then go two shades darker).
  • If you Google the name of the colour you're interested in, you can find plenty of people on message boards describing what it looks like on the walls (often with photos).
  • If a colour is popular and well-liked, that means everybody will be sick of it in ten years' time.

I've done my best to moderate my paint-colour obsession with other home decor related interests (especially ones that allow me to spruce up the house I actually live in so we can put it on the market). I've redecorated my bedroom:

and purchased a new credenza:

...but so detached have I become from my blogging identity that I didn't even take any "before" pictures to demonstrate the hideousness of my old Canadian-Tire entertainment unit before we dismantled it and put it in the basement. The best I could come up with was this:

If you look into the background at the right of that photo, you'll see me in my former incarnation, blogging away at the kitchen table. The most relevant "after" photo may not be the one of the new credenza but rather this one:

My new front-runners: Whitall Brown, Hiking Trail, Moccasin (thanks for the suggestion, Janet!), and Semolina (a step down from the more vivid Nacho Cheese). The red is for the accents, not the walls, though I may do the front door in Sangria if I have the choice.

What's the best cure for a one-track mind? New episodes of Lost? A good book? Finding ways to work the word "credenza" into polite conversation? Help a poor (former?) blogger out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

One-Track Mind

My husband is bored of me.

That may be an understatement. When he sees me coming he gets a kind of twitch, and if I corner him for a conversation, at the first pause he literally runs.

The problem is paint chips. I can't stop talking about them.

Hubby would be more sympathetic, I think, if we actually had to make a decision about paint colours anytime within, say, the next two months. But ground-breaking for the new house starts today: right now the house I am so assiduously decorating in my mind is little more than a few sheets of paper and a big hole full of muddy water.

With classes over for the year, paint has rushed in to fill the vacuum left by literature and grammar. Sure I've got exams to mark, but I also have magazines to read and important decisions to consider. Is Whitall Brown too dark for all four walls of the Master Bedroom? And if I pair it with Natural Wicker, can I put the lighter colour on just one wall, or would that look weird?

This is by no means the first obsession I've encountered in my life, though it is one that clings with a certain tenacity. I went through a phase where all I wanted to talk about was the Turin Shroud. That one gave hubby the twitches too, but at least it had a certain appealing improbability, a quirky charm. At one time, figure skating was my obsession: I would cancel social events just so I could watch the latest in that post-Nancy-Kerrigan era of tacky professional competitions dubbed "U.S.A. vs. the World" or "Battle of the Sexes."

Bub is the same way: he latches onto a single interest with obsessive intensity, but then moves on in a week or two. At one time it was The Cat in the Hat, then Thomas trains, and now closure devices: buttons, zippers, backpack latches, watch closures. I can readily imagine this trait in him developing one day into the specialized interest characteristic of autism, but right now it seems more like evidence that he is my son, heir to the genetic traits that I'm currently inflicting on my restless, long-suffering spouse.

I am comforted, though, to discover (through the magic of Google Image) that I am not alone in my appreciation for paint chips. People have turned paint chips into graphic art posters, ribbon holders, business-card holders, and wallets. It's like there's a whole blogosphere out there devoted to turning paint chips into fun craft projects. (Do they call the craft-blog world the craftosphere?) For those of us who specialize more in wordcraft than in arts and crafts, paint chips are equally compelling. I, for instance, am slightly embarrassed that the current front-runner for my kitchen is called "Nacho Cheese," but I love the fact that my living-room colour is "Kennebunkport Green" (I'm a sucker for the pseudo-elitist New England glamour of the Benjamin Moore Historical Colours line. And I will insist on spelling "Colours" with a "u" just so I can retain my Canadian citizenship.)

Needless to say, my blogging is suffering from this diversion of my mental energy. So humour me, if you will, and tell me: What do you think of these colours?

Any advice/horror stories/anecdotes to share about the wonderful world of paint-colour selection?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Part of This Morning's Lecture

(It's the last day of classes: time for a little nihilistic despair!)

Bub has been going through a boundary-testing period lately, flatly refusing to carry out basic instructions. If I say, "Time to go to the car, Bub!" he replies, "No, I don't think so. Not now. I will never, never do it. I'm not going."

Fortunately, children are easy to trick. "Bub, would you like to wear your boots to the car, or your Shrek shoes?"

"No boots!" Bub hollers, grabbing his Shrek shoes and sprinting to the car with them.

Perhaps more noticeably than the rest of us, Bub has a powerful need to believe that his actions are self-initiated, that the things he does are done freely, in pursuit of his own ends. The classic parental gambit of giving him choices allows me to hijack that trait and use it to control his behaviour.

In the novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the title character (who will grow up to become a Columbine-style high-school shooter) has many clinically significant traits of sociopathy, but at least as important is his preternatural ability to see through these gambits. He is a difficult child to raise in part because he utterly rejects the counterfeit freedom that most of us learn to accept in place of the real thing.

In that way, Kevin is like Bartleby and Sarah (the French Lieutenant's Woman), characters who can also be dismissed as insane because they see the bait for what it is and opt not to take it. (They prefer not to.) Charles continually offers Sarah the illusion of choice: he will arrange a governess position for her in London OR Dr. Grogan can find her a post somewhere else. The giddy freedom! The whole world is open to her if only she will stop asking for anything beyond a life of petty domestic drudgery, educating other women's children under conditions that render her conveniently invisible. Sarah is understood to be acting in a way that is irrationally contrary to her own interests when she rejects these tempting choices and insists instead not only on doing nothing, but doing it - like Bartleby - in a highly visible way.

At the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sam (Charles's former valet) moves up in the world by becoming a window-dresser in Mr. Freeman's large department store. His breakthrough innovation is to arrange the ties in a striking array, using them to spell out the words FREEMAN'S FOR CHOICE. An enterprising young capitalist, Sam instinctively grasps the substitution upon which our society depends: our willingness to accept choices (of ties, jobs, or footwear) in exchange for freedom.

So which do you like better - mothers as the new gentry, or mothers as the front-line workers from whom our children first learn to accept the illusion of freedom in place of the real thing?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Dream Job

I'm teaching "Bartleby, the Scrivener" this week, so I asked my students to describe the kind of employment they want once they graduate. What are the attributes of a good job?

The first thing they mentioned was pay. They want to make good money. (This was qualified later on, however, by a widespread agreement that they'd prefer a moderately paying job with reasonable hours to a 70-hour work-week and a six-figure salary.) The second attribute they mentioned was enjoyment. When I asked what would make a job enjoyable, their answers focused almost entirely on things not intrinsically related to the work: a pleasant workplace, opportunity to move around rather than being chained to a desk, social interaction with congenial colleagues. Moderate stress levels, some good perks and job security all came a bit further down the list.

Nobody mentioned status, except insofar as pay equals status. My students don't want a title or a corner office, and despite a fair bit of prodding from me, they didn't mention things like challenge or creativity. This derailed my lesson plan a bit, since a major theme in "Bartleby" is the mind-numbing nature of his work as a law copyist, but I found it interesting nonetheless. Like my students, I've always placed the highest value on enjoying my work, but for me that enjoyment has always been related to the work itself, rather than where or with whom I do it. I read books for a living, and then I go and talk about them. For the sake of continuing to do that, I'm willing to put up with low job security and a very weird relationship to status (in that teaching at a university is an almost embarrassingly high-status job from the point of view of most ordinary citizens, yet teaching as cheap, expendable sessional labour is almost embarrassingly low-status from the point of view of anyone within the profession).

I really love what I do, especially on sunny April days like this one when no one can quite take seriously the fact that we're supposed to sit in a stuffy classroom and talk about pretentious postmodern depictions of the Victorian period. My students are skipping classes in droves, and yet those of us who do show up seem to enter into the spirit of the class more lightheartedly. My lecture is interrupted by whooping revelers on the grass outside the window, and we all grin a little bit as I try to drown their hollers out with my musings on the nineteenth-century transition from a feudal to a capitalist society.

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, which I'm teaching in another class this week, Charles Smithson (grandson to a baronet) is offered a partnership in his future father-in-law's thriving department store. As a gentleman he is horrified and affronted, but the author cuts him some slack for this charmingly in-period reaction. (Today, a job offer like that would be enough to attract 16 business-school graduates to compete in humiliating challenges involving lemonade stands and tie-dye t-shirt sales.) What redeems Charles's snobbery is a principle that binds him to his medieval counterpart, who pursued courtly love and the Holy Grail in much the way Charles pursues his amateur paleontology studies: "they all rejected or reject the notion of possession as the purpose of life, whether it be of a woman's body, or of high profit at all costs." The true principle of gentility - what differentiates it from the vulgarity of the nouveau riche - is not idleness but rather a willingness to place value on something other than having and getting.

"You have just turned down a tempting offer in commercial applied science in order to continue your academic teaching?" the narrator asks. "Your last exhibition did not sell as well as the previous one, but you are determined to keep to your new style? You have just made some decision in which your personal benefit, your chance of possession, has not been allowed to interfere? Then do not dismiss Charles's state of mind as a mere conditioning of futile snobbery."

It's a delicious notion, this idea that preferring something else - artistic integrity, the pursuit of knowledge, the preservation of a waning style of life - to the mere accumulation of toys is enough to make one a kind of modern-day Victorian gentleman. We belong to a cabal of the few, the enlightened, who are able to resist the siren song of profit, who rise above the money-grubbing of a money-grubbing age. Do you suppose the notion would seem less enticing if the author had acknowledged that among these idealistic ranks are not only artists and academics, but also the vast majority of mothers? Those of us who stay at home, who slide onto the mommy-track: we are living the life my students claim they want, the life John Fowles describes in such dignified terms. Certain feminist writers (cough, cough, Linda Hirshman) may lament the way women are fleeing the ranks of the highest-paid professions, but what they fail to realize is that we are the standard-bearers: we are the new gentry.

That, at least, is what I'll keep telling myself.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Researchers have discovered that annoyance can be bad for your health. When annoyance levels are high, sufferers are more than usually prone to weight gain, heart attack, compulsive behaviour, and psychosis. As a result of these findings, doctors have developed a simple test to determine whether the annoyances in their patients' lives have reached toxic levels. Take this test to see if the annoying people in your life are putting you at risk.

Do you share a home or rental accommodations with a person who does any of the following: (Score one point for each annoying behaviour.)

  • Opens the new box of cereal before the old cereal is gone?
  • Replaces milk that has gone past its best-before date but leaves the old milk in the fridge instead of pouring it down the sink?
  • Calls out in the middle of the night for help finding a stuffed animal that is two inches away?

Does your home feature any of the following: (Score one point for each annoying object.)
  • A leaky faucet?
  • Something expensive that looked really good in the store but doesn't look quite right in your living room but the furniture store won't take it back?
  • A creak in the floor of the baby room that invariably awakens the entire household if someone happens to creep in during the night to check on the sleeping infant?

Do you have to do anything of the following during the next month: (Score one point for each annoying activity.)
  • File your tax return?
  • Do emissions-testing for your vehicle in order to renew your license plates?
  • Move to a new home?

Does your workplace feature any of the following: (Score one point for each annoying task/person.)
  • Morale-building group activities?
  • Unpaid yet subtly mandatory outings?
  • Customers?

Your annoyance levels have reached dangerous heights if upon completing this test you feel:
(a) Enraged that the most particularly annoying things in your life were not included.
(b) Enraged that your perfectly healthy and normal behaviours are being classified as "annoying" but an ignorant blogger scientific researcher.

Your annoyance levels are of some concern but not yet dangerous if upon completing this test you feel:
(a) Rueful.
(b) Glad that you no longer work in retail.

Although your personal annoyance levels are very low, you may be a source of annoyance to others if upon completing this test you feel:
(a) Sorry for the rest of us.
(b) Glad that you filed your tax return last month.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Having Fun is Always Optional

Do you require your children to participate in organized family activities and games when you're at home?

I don't. There is, of course, an ever-shrinking list of things that are forbidden: no helping yourself to Fruit Cremes from the pantry; no playing with the disposable razors. And there are, of course, certain behaviours that are mandatory: meals, baths, bed. Leaving the house is usually not optional, despite Bub's earnest assurances that "Nursery School is off today!"

When we're at home, though, in those hours between meals and bed, it's pretty much a free-for-all. I may not let the children watch Tarzan eight times, but I won't make them play Dora dominoes if they don't want to either. (I'll even accede to the Pie's sudden rule changes as we near the end of the game, where suddenly Dora and Boots become a match because they're friends.)

School is another matter. There, Bub is required to sit in a circle, listen to a story, or construct a craft. I'm glad they push him there to accept such requirements, to take turns when he's playing pick-up-sticks, to share the sharing toys with the other children. That, arguably, is precisely why I send him there.

But I've always felt that home is the place where your time is your own, where the leisure hours are up to you to fill. I can remember riding the bus home from a high-school field trip to New York City, my suitcase full of postcards and souvenirs, a Swatch watch, a Bloomingdales Beach Club nightie. I was keeping an anxious eye on my watch, silently urging the bus forward in the hopes of having a few Sunday evening hours to do nothing in that wonderfully productive way that you can do nothing at home after a trip jam-packed with visits to Saks Fifth Avenue and the Museum of Modern Art. I wanted to write in my diary, lay out my purchases and admire them, sort things and organize them - just to relive and process the trip in the privacy of my bedroom.

That's how I think of home for my children as well. I do try to create opportunities for my children to play in developmentally beneficial ways, but it's always up to them whether to join in. If we ever have a Family Game Night, participation will be strictly optional.

Bub's teacher thinks I should reinforce the gains she's achieving at nursery school by requiring him to participate in certain activities at home. I can see her logic, but I have an almost visceral reaction against the idea. However beneficial such activities might be to Bub, they violate my sense of the sanctity of home as the haven of the permissible, the place where there are many things you can do and nothing that you must.

What are the rules at your house? How often is it mandatory for your children to have fun?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sorting Photos

I spent Earth Hour last weekend sorting through six months' worth of photos on hubby's computer. I still don't know if the embargo on electricity was supposed to include screens as well as lights; I do know that after grumbling all week about the absurdity of the whole idea ("How does sitting in the dark for one hour equate to making 'a big difference'?"), this was a surprisingly compliant way for me to observe the occasion. I picked up the resulting 50+ prints at the grocery store today and spent an hour sorting and putting them in albums.

I've never understood the people who have years of photos lying in stacks around the house. Mine go in albums the same day I pick them up. Every time. No mucking about with special scissors or scrapbooking paraphernalia - I just pop them into the little pockets and I'm done. I was somewhat appalled, though, to discover that the last photos I'd printed featured sand and bathing suits.

The thing is, nothing restores your confidence in your own parenting like sorting through a good six-month block of photos. I am filled now with a lovely, effortless belief in my own propaganda; it is clear to me that I am in fact a wonderful parent whose primary function is to ferry my children from one colourful, stimulating environment to the next. My children spend most of their hours out of doors, digging sand castles and jumping in piles of leaves; when they go inside it is to explore indoor parks and museums, examining tarantulas and climbing elaborate structures made of brightly coloured plush polygons. They are smiling and companionable, my children, pulling the occasional long face, but mostly radiating happiness. They live their lives in lockstep, their heads bent together over tiny projects, their sunburned knees peeking out of denim shorts.

The best time for sorting photos, I feel, is after the kids are in bed, when nostalgia and self-admiration cannot be interrupted by any rude incursions of real life. Bloggers sometimes lament that the act of recording our lives threatens to replace reality with our mythologization of it. In my experience, that substitution is only occasionally possible. Would that it would happen more often.