Monday, June 30, 2008

Only Me

Pie has a startlingly strong sense of her own identity. She fondly embraces the number 2 whenever she sees it, because she is two (or, as she once put it, "my name is 2"). She is a gender crusader, vigorously dividing the world into boy/girl categories (Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are "girly" movies; Cars, Peter Pan, and even A Bug's Life are boys' movies). She resists nicknames and even adjectives, though yesterday she did admit, "I'm your prickly Pie." Selfhood is her hobby, her mantra, her consuming interest. And her new favourite expression is "only me."

You don't like the colour pink, Mama. Only me!

Only I like Cinderella. Not you!

Only I am the best.

I don't quite know what to make of the fact that her strong drive for individualism is wedded right now to her preference for the colour pink and her enjoyment of the Disney Princesses. Since her primary rival for attention and toys is her brother, it makes sense that she would attach herself to gender as a means of differentiating herself. The Thomas trains lie unattended these days; the toy cars are mouldering in the box. Pie's acquisitive, envious heart has gone out into the world searching for something that is hers alone, and this is what she's found:

Much of the pleasure of the Princess empire is related to mastery: like the Super Heroes and Thomas Trains, the Princesses challenge a child's ability to process and coordinate information. Percy is a green train with the number 6; Iron Man wears a robot suit and can fly; Belle wears a yellow dress and marries the Beast. It's the thrill of recognition, of expertise, that drives a child's enjoyment of the franchise. I know where Pie's Princess-obsession is coming from; I just don't always like where it takes her. At the bookstore, she brings me product-linked I-Can-Read books to read aloud. The plot of one of them revolves around princesses dreaming about dancing. In this book no one does anything: Ariel, Aurora, and Cinderella simply daydream about balls in which they are inexplicably dressed in ballet costume, dancing with the prince. Pie already has a bit of a crush on Prince Eric; she's already aware that her curly hair and blue eyes bring her far more compliments and attention than anything she might achieve through her own efforts.

When Pie was a baby I quickly grew impatient with all the hand-wringing over Bratz dolls and right-wing toy-makers' antifeminist conspiracies. I was thrilled to have a girl, and I was - and still am - unconvinced that girliness is something to be ashamed of. I always preferred Anne Shirley, who longs for puffed sleeves even as she's cracking slates over Gilbert Blythe's head, to tomboyish Jo March, who wants to be a man so she can join the army. I've never bought into the idea that being strong means being like a boy.

But I grew up before the era of the Disney Princess. We had Cinderella and Snow White in my day, of course, but they had not yet formed a posse and achieved world domination.

"What about Lady and the Tramp?" I asked Pie the other day when she was cataloguing movies into gender-based categories.

"That one's a boy movie!" she insisted scornfully.

"Well, how about The Incredibles?"

That was a poser. "Hmmm," she pondered. "There's a girl in that one..."

Help us Elastigirl. You're our only hope.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Kid World

Their Toys:
1 Cars sleeping bag
1 Disney Princess sleeping bag
2 flashlights

Our Toys:
8 issues of Canadian House and Home
1 Benjamin Moore fandeck
1 TV showing Euro Cup soccer

Their Food:
chicken fingers
peaches in a light syrup

Our Food:
three-cheese spinach dip
peppercorn burger

Their Conversation:
"This thing? It's a cold pack that you put on a boo boo to make it better. I NEED that because I have a boo boo right here. I'm pretending that it's cold."

Our Conversation:
"Is a money order just as good as a certified cheque? What's the difference between a draft and a certified cheque? I didn't know that you actually needed to bring a regular cheque to the bank in order to get it certified. Did you know that?"

Their Fort:
In the bedroom, made from a blanket, with a campfire in it.

Our Fort:
In the kitchen, with magazines spread out over the island and legal documents all over the kitchen table.

We visited friends this weekend, whose children quickly formed a posse with ours. While the grown-ups nibbled Belgian chocolates and processed the sale of their home, the children disappeared into Kid World, a place with secret rituals that I can no longer fully unfold, even when I stand eavesdropping outside the bedroom door. Kid World is a private place; my presence is not always wanted, so I creep back to the kitchen to sip my tall Americano in peace.

Friday, June 20, 2008


A grey and white cat prowls our neighbourhood. She's a tiny ball of fluff, and she's the terror of the local squirrels and birds. Occasionally she takes refuge on our windowsill. Her presence will be announced by the volley of growls erupting from my own mild-mannered felines, who crouch warningly and then leap at the window, bashing their skulls in an attempt to expel the invader. Hissing and spitting, claws extended, they are transformed from lazy couch-dwellers into the epitome of pure aggression.

They remind me a lot of my children lately.

One symptom missing from Bub's autism diagnosis is the specialized interest. He definitely has the capacity to latch onto a single interest and obsess about it for weeks on end, but once he's learned all he can about the subject, he usually moves on. The latest interest was fasteners - anything with a buckle, button or zipper would absorb him for hours at a time. The end result of this phase was that he can now dress himself. He's ready to move on, and he seems to have latched onto something new: tormenting his sister.

I realize that this represents a huge leap forward into social awareness. Instead of manipulating objects, he has begun to experiment with manipulating people. I would be happy about this - really I would - if only the screaming would stop for five minutes.

It starts the moment they get up in the morning. Pie is snuggled under the covers with me, and when Bub makes a move to burrow in with us Pie sends out the opening volley: "No! I will trap you!" The Nonsense Olympics have begun.

Bub: You won't trap me! First I will turn you into the Incredible Hulk!

Pie: [wailing] I'm not the Incredible Hulk! I'm Pie!

Bub: You are the Incredible Hulk, and I will snap you down!

Eventually, the verbal warfare devolves into physical combat. Slapping, biting, and pulling hair are part of the repertoire, but since the children realize that these tactics put them at high risk for time-out, they usually start with pulling feet, grabbing pyjamas, sitting on top of one another, and hurling pillows.

This goes on all day.

They have always fought, of course - they are siblings, so that goes without saying. But until now their fighting has had a purpose: they both want the same toy, or they can't agree on which video to watch. Now, fighting is an end in itself, a hobby that can be pursued anytime, anywhere.

Social learning is very important. My children are a kind of lab for one another, an experimental environment in which they can attain a comprehensive knowledge of human emotions and responses. But I've had it. Seriously. I am done.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Two Random Theories

Theory #1: Gender and Marriage

After a year of practising family law, hubby says that divorces always happen for the same reason: one partner is crazy, and the other is controlling. When a new client walks in the door, it's just a matter of finding out which one it is. Your wife is crazy? Oh, hello, Mr. Controlling. Your husband is controlling? Hey, Crazy Lady. Gender is a useful predictor: most of the time, it's the wife who's crazy and the husband who's controlling. At first glance that seems counterintuitive to me. None of the women I know have controlling husbands. Lazy husbands, sure. Distracted, inattentive, unromantic husbands, yes. But not controlling ones. I know plenty of husbands, though, who would say that their wives are too controlling. (Okay, maybe those are just my husbands.) Perhaps the true lesson to be learned here is that when the husband is controlling, it leads to divorce, but when the wife is controlling, it's all for the greater good. (My mother-in-law and I had a good laugh at that idea. FIL and hubby were less amused.)

Theory #2: Performer and Audience

Bub's best friend is the kind of kid whose presence in the room is felt by everyone. He has a big voice, big emotions, and an enormous appetite for adventure. It's no mystery why the two of them connect so well: Adrian is like a roller-coaster and Bub loves going along for the ride. A bit more mysterious is the Pie's adoration. "Adrian is my favourite!" she sighs happily whenever she sees him, despite the fact that he has spent the entire time smashing swords with Bub. Pie at age two is not much different from my teenage self: she does not require actual interaction to sustain her love. If Bub is a giddy passenger on the Adrian roller-coaster, Pie is content to be spectator, enjoying the excitement at a remove.

"Adrian's a Performer and my children are Audience," I told his mother yesterday. In most friendships, I suspect, people are allotted one role or the other. Performance can take many forms: the Performer can be a class clown, a teller of anecdotes, or even a provider of wise counsel. The key is the element of appreciation. An Audience friend nods, laughs, and smiles, applauding enthusiastically while the Performer does his shtick. The engine that drives the friendship is the Audience's willingness to buy what the Performer is selling.

I'm a Performer at heart, despite the fact that I'm not especially funny, adventurous, or zany. I'm the kind of person whose teenage diaries contain occasional disclaimers from my BFF, scrawled in margins or on the back cover, warning readers, "I am not a mere sidekick, as depicted in these pages. I am a real person." I have occupied the sidekick role a few times in my life, but never very successfully. Being an Audience friend has taken me places I would never have gone otherwise, but my Performer friends have always had a tendency to move on (perhaps to a better Audience), and their departure has always been something of a relief.

Which do you prefer to be, in friendships or romantic relationships? Audience or Performer?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Flooring Dilemma

It's floor-picking time. Here's the floor (and cabinetry and countertop) for our ensuite bathroom:

And here's our kitchen floor and cabinets (the floor is cork):

I found a good deal on this hardwood (5" planks, hand-scraped engineered maple), but I'm worried that it's too orange with the red walls:

Do you think it looks better with Chocolate Fondue?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Life Half-Lived

Many, many years ago I saw the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo. I remember the film because it established for me that Pierce Brosnan had gotten kind of icky since his glory days as Remington Steele. It's a strange kind of ickiness - he is a classically handsome man with symmetrical features and plenty of hair. It has something to do with his smile, the "I'm so sexy" grin he puts on, his jaw jutting out exultantly. The ick-factor seriously interfered with my ability to enjoy the film, since halfway through the movie the art-heist plot is replaced by a prolonged celebration of his relationship with Russo. He's a daredevil! He flies planes! And she gets to join him in his extreme-sport-playing, jet-setting lifestyle! The whole movie is a homage to the idea that living life to the fullest means risking one's neck in death-defying stunts.

In Myers-Briggs terms, these characters are SPs: spontaneous, impulse-driven concrete thinkers who function best when they can live most fully in their bodies, suspending conscious awareness in favour of a pure adrenaline rush. I have never been under the impression that I would be happier if I adopted a similar lifestyle. When I was ten years old a friend of mine got a motor-bike and we all got to try it out on the front lawn. I knew I didn't want to get on that bike, but I feared the social stigma of refusing. Against my better judgment I climbed on, frozen in terror and unable to hear the instructions over the pounding in my ears. I squeezed something (the throttle?) and blasted forward, gripping the handlebars for dear life as I crashed straight into the fence. Afterwards I stumbled home, clutching my scratched knuckles and enjoying the melodrama far more than I had the brief burst of speed that preceded it.

I am risk-averse. I don't like sports. Even the hay-ride at the ranch I took Bub to for a nursery-school field trip was a little too scary to be wholly enjoyable for me. (There were no bars along the side of the wagon, so parents sat around the perimeter. The path was bumpy and sometimes steep.) The things I enjoy mostly take place in my mind. I read books. I write. I imagine.

I don't think you get to have it both ways. One of my students recently remarked that she had never enjoyed imagining things. (This was in response to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a novel she found too imaginative to be enjoyable.) She was a tomboy; she played soccer at an age when I was holed up in my bedroom, building a fort in the closet and writing a soap opera featuring all the kids in my class. That's not to say that bookish people can't be good at sports, just that the main source of pleasure and meaning in one's life is usually either inward or outward. And as humiliating as it was to be picked last in gym class, I always knew which way I'd rather be.

There are two refrains I often hear in blogland that seem to embrace the idea that it would be better if we (and our children) weren't quite so ... bloggy. We want our children to be fearless; we worry about their anxiety, their hesitation and caution. And we want to be parents who live in the moment, who are capable of shutting down the analytical mind long enough simply to experience each day as it comes. There are people who live like that - who jump in feet first, who live each moment fully without analyzing it or mentally composing blog posts about it. But they're not better. They're not happier. The fact that they would be miserable leading my life doesn't mean I'd be happy leading theirs.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Making the Case for Benign Neglect

Biological parents in nineteenth-century children's literature are a sorry lot, to say the least. They are constantly succumbing to influenza or typhoid, and when they manage to survive past their offspring's tenth birthday, as Jim Hawkins' mother does in Treasure Island, their behaviour is an almost suicidal mix of foolishness and cowardice. They may be kind and loving, but a few white blood cells and a rudimentary survival instinct would go a long way.

Twentieth-century parents are an almost equally endangered species, as Harry Potter and the Baudelaire orphans can attest, but now they tend to be murder victims, prey to the machinations of Voldemort and Count Olaf. No longer can writers depend upon a convenient outbreak of illness to set the stage for adventure.

Neil Gaiman's children's books embrace the adventure formula with gusto, but instead of murdering the parents or wiping them out in an outbreak of avian flu, Gaiman simply distracts them. In The Wolves in the Walls for instance (a book my children's literature students regard as sure to afflict my children with buried traumas, due to the wolves' gory obsession with strawberry jam), the parents blithely disregard the heroine's many warnings about the scratchings and clawings coming from within the walls. When the wolves finally emerge, it's up to Lucy to save the day while her parents play the tuba and plan out fantasy vacations.

Perhaps more to the point, Gaiman's other picture book, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish features a dad who placidly reads his newspaper while the neighbourhood children pass him along in a series of swaps for items such as a gorilla mask and a pet rabbit. When his son finally tracks him down, the dad is absent-mindedly munching lettuce in a rabbit pen, wholly oblivious to his surroundings. As his son solemnly quips, "My dad doesn't notice much of anything when he's reading the newspaper."

I picked up Gaiman's juvenile novel Coraline last week while Pie and I were at the bookstore. While Pie browsed through a stack of Disney-themed I Can Read books, I swallowed the novel in a single gulp. Coraline is an only child whose parents are experts in benign neglect. Her mother serves microwaved meals, but her father is worse: he cooks up meals with ingredients like fennel and goat cheese (as Coraline reminds him, "You know I don't like recipes!"). Both parents work from home and spend most of their time absent-mindedly telling their daughter to run along and play. When Coraline finds a secret doorway in the wall, leading to a mirror-world inhabited by her "other mother," there is a certain appeal.

The other mother is an excellent cook: she prepares all of Coraline's favourite meals and stocks her other bedroom with carefully selected toys. Most of all, she gives the girl her undivided attention. All the time. Coraline quickly grows weary of this disturbingly intense focus and spends the bulk of the novel trying to rescue her oblivious parents from the other mother's captivity. (When she succeeds, her parents manage not to notice that two days have passed of which they have no recollection.)

The earliest children's novels - Little Women is a good example - feature docile children learning from the wise example of their benevolent parents. Roald Dahl may be the best example of the backlash against this trend: his novels are usually touted for their child-centered focus. Adults in Dahl's novels are either monstrously abusive or more childlike than the children; their villainy and incompetence set the stage for the powerful child hero to emerge.

Gaiman's brilliant innovation, I think, is that he takes this "child-centered" formula and makes it irresistibly appealing to parents. The parents in his novels are distracted, inattentive, and beloved. Their children are confident of their parents' love and willing to undertake significant risks to rescue them from peril. Gaiman's child characters actually prefer their parents' unavailability to the alternative: a kind of devouring attention that would eat them alive. I have no doubts about the appeal of this rather transparently self-serving adult fantasy; what I'm less sure of is whether it's as good for the kids as it is for us parents.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Lost Things

They say there are no atheists in foxholes. This, I suspect, is a case of hyperbole. There may be no agnostics, perhaps, but I'm sure that a survey of foxhole residents would turn up a few atheistic stalwarts, staring death down without flinching. Hyperbole aside, however, the saying captures what I'm sure is a true observation: for those who do not pray regularly, mortal peril is the top summons to prayer.

But what's in second place? If I were a contestant on Family Feud I'd bet it's "misplaced objects."

I am not a Roman Catholic, so I am not intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of praying to the saints. I know that particular saints are assigned certain tasks: some take care of the sick, others keep a solicitous eye out for mothers, while others look after people in their travels. The only saint I know by both name and function is St. Anthony, patron of lost things. Even the most lapsed Catholic will summon St. Anthony's assistance when looking for a misplaced pair of glasses or a vanished set of keys.

I am wary of prayers that seem designed to avoid inconvenience. When explaining the reality of answered prayer last week, my pastor gave an example of a lost screw that was recovered after a few earnest prayers. I squirmed uncomfortably in my pew. So saving the hassle of a trip to the hardware store is higher on God's list of priorities than ending war, disease, and world hunger?

Yet the idea that God is concerned with lost objects has a certain universality to it. Catholics petition St. Anthony; Protestants preach sermons about the miraculous recovery of nails and screws; even the New Testament is full of parables about lost sheep, pearls of great price, objects that people search for feverishly, their desire to restore what has been lost functioning as a metaphor for God's love and concern for humanity.

These stories have a certain personal resonance for me right now. My cell phone is beeping and I can't find the charger. It's supposed to be in the kitchen pantry, a location that is cluttered enough that I can never quite be sure I've searched it thoroughly. I am also missing the mailbox key for the new house (issued a few months ago along with our postal code). I can remember tucking that mailbox key away - I knew I wouldn't be using it for a few months, so I put it someplace safe, where it wouldn't get lost. But where?

Lost things are not as different from foxholes as they seem. They taunt us with our fallibility; they serve as glaring reminders of the gaps in our memory. There is always a moment of disbelief that accompanies the discovery of such a loss. I knew it was here. How can it be gone? Even when the lost object is something that can easily and cheaply be replaced, I will turn the house upside down looking for it. Once I lost a paint chip and stomped around the house muttering, "It was right here!" Hubby pointed out that I could go back to the store and get another one and I replied, "I've already got another one. That's not the point!"

The point, I think, is that lost objects shake our faith in the stability and knowability of the physical world. To lose something is to be confronted with that greater loss, the loss of our past selves, the selves that disappear each moment, despite our attempts to anchor them in scrapbooks and blog posts. I sorted through clothing for a garage sale this weekend, setting aside a few well-loved sleepers before boxing the rest up for sale. What startled me most is how many little outfits seemed wholly unfamiliar to me. I have no memory of a six-month-old Bub wearing that Winnie the Pooh romper. Where has that chubby boy gone, leaving nothing behind, not even a memory? It's no wonder that a missing object, no matter how trivial in and of itself, sends us running to God, praying that Someone is holding our lives in His hands, preserving each moment as it flees from our spotty, imperfect minds.

It sometimes happens when looking for
Lost objects, a book, a picture or
A coin or spoon,
That something falls across the mind -
Not quite a shadow but what a shadow would be
In a place that lacked light.

As though the lost things have withdrawn
Into themselves, books returned
To paper or wood or thought,
Coins and spoons to simple ores,
Lustreless and without history,
Waiting out of sight

And becoming part of a larger loss
Without a name
Or definition or form
Not unlike what touches us
In moments of shame.

"Lost Things" by Mary Swann (as created by Carol Shields)