Monday, September 29, 2008


"Is it today still?" Pie asked. We were on our way home from an outing and she was anxiously awaiting her opportunity to sit on the potty and earn two Smarties. Cleverly, we had decided to reward her with two Smarties for every potty visit and a whole Halloween-size box for a successful deposit. Not so cleverly, we had warned her that her sitting fee would be halved tomorrow: two Smarties for sitting on the potty TODAY; one Smartie for sitting on the potty tomorrow.

"Is it today still?" she asked again a moment later. Yes, we explained. It would stay today until she went to sleep for the night and then woke up and had breakfast. Then it would be tomorrow. Except we would call it "today". "Do I get TWO Smarties when we get home?" she asked anxiously. Yes, dear. Two Smarties.

"If you go pee on the potty," I added encouragingly, "then you get a whole box!"

"But I don't want to pee on the potty," Pie replied. "I want to sit on the potty and then get two." This is why, at age three-and-two-months, she is still not even partially potty-trained.

"Is it two today?" she asked. "Two Smarties?" Yes, and yes.

By the time we got home, the winds had shifted. Pie didn't want to sit on the potty; she didn't want Smarties; she didn't want a treat. This from a girl who had given herself a hemorrhoid that morning squeezing out a tiny turd in exchange for a box of candy. I can only conclude that the intensity of her desire became self-defeating: the pressure of wanting two Smarties, and worrying that today might suddenly turn to tomorrow, cutting her Smartie-salary in half, became too much. It was easier just to stop wanting than to continue in that anxious state of anticipation.

Is that something we outgrow - the ability to switch off our desires in self-defense? Are there things I really, truly want that I've persuaded myself to abandon out of fear or helplessness? Once, I wanted a tenure-track job - I was ready to pick up and move across the country for the sake of anyone who offered me one. And when I decided to stop wanting that, I threw the switch every bit as thoroughly as Pie did, directing all my energies into my new goal to stay here, have babies, and never, ever move away. Everything I value in my life right now came from that decision, but I'm always dimly aware that there's a part of me that really craves a good box of Smarties.

Friday, September 26, 2008

I, Introvert

Do you consider the word "extravert" to be a compliment or an insult? My theory - and I believe I've expressed it here before - is that Canadians and Americans define this word differently. To Americans, an extravert is a popular, outgoing guy who is more likely than an introvert to show leadership skills, work well with others, and succeed in the workplace. To Canadians, an extravert is a shallow poser with no inner life.

Setting aside the cultural differences underlying these opposing definitions, I think they arise from conflicting ways of defining the introvert/extravert scale. The American definition assumes that people are drawn to what they like: extraverts like people; introverts (suspiciously) like to be alone. Canadians, on the other hand, focus on the flip side: introverts don't like people, but extraverts (even more suspiciously) can't stand to be alone.

The traditional wording of the Myers-Briggs personality quiz supports the American definition. "Where do you get your energy from?" it asks, the two possible answers being "other people" or "time alone." I'm always tempted to opt for the unstated third possibility: "food and sleep." For me the question is not so much where my energy comes from but rather where it goes. I am an introvert not so much because I treasure my alone time (though, admittedly, I do) but because I find social interactions draining.

Not all introverts are like this. I'm sure many of them are introverted because they enjoy solitary pursuits. But there is a subset of introverts, I believe, whose withdrawal from social situations arises not so much from misanthropy or poor social skills as from a hyper-awareness of social cues.

When I was dating my ex-husband I was often surprised by how little awareness he had of social cues that seemed glaringly obvious to me. We would stop to chat with some acquaintances and I would notice everything: the quick exchanged glance that suggested criticism or amusement; the body language suggesting a desire to end the conversation; the barely-suppressed raised eyebrow in response to a risque joke. Now, the ex was, in many ways, not a stellar example of extraversion, but he was far more comfortable in these exchanges than I was precisely because so much of the interaction went below his radar.

Shyness, I concluded, was not merely a matter of social awkwardness. It is also, surprisingly, the byproduct of too much social awareness. Shy people are more likely than extraverts to perceive (or imagine) snubs and slights, and they are more likely to perceive, and try to follow, social rules.

Take, for instance, the multiple and conflicting rules governing large-group social situations. In a one-on-one conversation, the rules are comparatively simple: give the other person a chance to talk; make sure the conversation includes both parties. Throw in a few extra participants, however, and the rules become much harder to follow. How do you determine whose turn it is to speak? At what point does it become necessary to use questions to draw in the quietest person at the table? If the group is larger than four or five people, at what point is it acceptable (and even required) to detach from one conversation and join another?

The shy person is aware, to a debilitating degree, of these dilemmas. Shy people not only notice these social undercurrents, but also care about them. Extraverts, I think, have stronger armour. They are more likely to jump into the conversation simply because it interests them, without keeping track of who has done the most talking or noticing the stifled yawns of those bored by the direction the conversation has taken. It's not so much that extraverts have better social skills as that they enjoy a kind of freedom from the information-overload introverts often experience in social situations.

The chain of cause-and-effect seems pretty clear here: I am hyper-aware of social cues and social rules, so I find social situations draining and need time alone. But then I look at my children. Neither of them is old enough to grasp the inner workings of the social world. Snubs, cliques, rules, and hierarchies are all still mercifully shrouded in the mists of the future. But their personalities are already evident.

I vividly remember my own shock as I discovered, at the age of four and five, that girls could be mean. Yet my shyness was ingrained long before I knew about the petty exclusions of the little-girl world. Pie is the same way: she looks at other people warily. She may not know yet what they're capable of, but she knows enough to be suspicious. Bub, on the other hand, is hail-fellow-well-met. He never met a plumber he didn't like. Grocery-store clerks are his new best friends. He is supremely confident that the people he meets will be passionately interested in the fact that he just watched the movie Madagascar. When his overtures meet with a lukewarm response, he is undaunted. Pie, meanwhile, watches from the wings. She doesn't know yet what to watch for, but she's learning. Her instinct for distrust will, in due time, teach her the signs of rejection, disapproval, and dislike that will keep her mutely at the edge of the high-school cafeteria. She will avoid certain pitfalls that others overlook, but she will never know the blithe freedom of those extraverted peers whose innate trust in the human race preserves them in blissful ignorance.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I Am

I'm teaching The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time again this week, and my students adore it. They love Christopher's blunt innocence and sharp intelligence, and when asked whether they ever find themselves disagreeing with Christopher's opinions, they shake their heads solemnly.

That's when I get them to turn to p. 116. "People think computers are different from people because they don't have minds," Christopher says, "but the mind is just a complicated machine." People like to believe that they have an essential self, he claims, but that belief is itself a trick of the brain. There is no homunculus, no "little man" living inside our heads receiving inputs from the outside world and driving the brain as if it were a stick-shift.

Not surprisingly, that notion meets with stiff resistance. I resist it, though I don't pretend to be able to build an airtight argument in defense of old-fashioned Cartesian mind-body dualism. Perhaps more interesting than the old, vexed question of the relationship between mind and body is the question Andrea posed today in a book review: the book "make[s] the tantalizing point that sentience takes up so much of our mental real estate and consumes so much energy that it has to be good for something, even if we haven't figured out what yet." Consciousness - what is it good for? We not only exist, but we know that we exist. What possible purpose does that serve?

According to St. Anselm, existence is a good. Existence is not merely a prerequisite for other good things, but is good in itself. To exist is better than not to exist. St. Anselm uses this concept as the basis for what I have always found to be one of the sketchier arguments for the existence of God. But the idea has broader implications. Is my life a burden I agree to assume only so long as I am experiencing happiness and pleasure at least 51% of the time? Or does it work the other way around? Is mere existence so valuable a good that even under conditions of overwhelming sadness and pain I will still pursue my continued existence at all costs?

It's easy for me to grasp the value of my existence in September. September is my favourite month of the year. The coolness of the air stirs my blood; the crisp edges of the leaves hint at all the coming fall pleasures like hot applesauce and pumpkin spice lattes. Fall feels right to me in a way that no other season does - I feel healthy and energetic; to exist is evidently so very much better than not to exist. But I also feel oddly surprised at the idea that existence, under any conditions short of intolerable suffering, might be considered a good in itself. I have so much else to be thankful for that I have forgotten, til now, to be amazed at how improbable and even inconceivable it is that I should not only exist, but also know that I exist, and rejoice.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My (New) Hometown

I've been feeling a bit disconnected from the kids since they started school. Hubby has been doing more of the drop-offs and pick-ups since we moved, and as a result I have to interrogate the children if I want to get a sense of what they've done that day. Bub's report is always the same: he played with a new boy who had a red shirt. I'm not sure whether this is a default response, or whether he really does select his playmates based on their shirt colour. Pie's reports are more mysterious. There was a TV at day-care yesterday, she claims, but they weren't allowed to watch it. "Somebody's mom stayed at my preschool," she insisted. "But I don't know her name. The mom wouldn't let us watch TV."


Fortunately, this is a small town, so I know where to go when I need the inside scoop on how my kids are doing: the grocery store.

My initiation into small-town life occurred last week when I pulled into the parking lot and saw the teacher from Bub's Best Start program. Bub had a good morning, she reported, aside from a small altercation when it was time to go inside. "I have to be the boss," he growled at her. Her eyebrows flew up, so he drove home his advantage: "I am the boss."

So it was no real surprise the other day when I heard my name (mispronounced) as I pushed my cart down the dairy aisle. It was Mrs. Rowe, Bub's kindergarten teacher. I am usually too intimidated to approach the teacher directly for an after-school report: she has that awe-inspiring aura of calm authority that I associate with the best primary-school teachers. As soon as I see her benevolent, smiling face I feel irresistibly compelled to be on my best behaviour.

"I'm glad I ran into you!" she said. "I put a note in Bub's backpack but I'd rather explain what happened today in person." It had been school picture day; the schedule was thrown off and the afternoon was very rushed. Bub was having trouble transitioning and - to make a long story short - he bit his E.A. (a wonderful woman with a wealth of experience working with autism).

I left the grocery store in tears, but not because of the biting incident. "Bub is fitting in so well," Mrs. Rowe assured me. She and Josie (the biting victim) love him - he's so full of personality. Bub has even formed a fledgling friendship: he and a little boy named Jake play together a lot - she's even seen them reaching out to touch each other's faces. When she's had autistic children in her class before, it has always been necessary to explain their differences to the rest of the class, but she and Josie have decided to say nothing - Bub is finding his place in the class and there's no need to call attention to his differences.

It's not a bad perk of small-town life when I can pick up a dose of reassurance at the grocery store along with my loaf of bread, container of milk, and stick of butter.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Clothes Make the Man

In the pilot episode of My So-Called Life, Angela Chase dyes her hair red. "I know she did it to get a rise out of me," her mother insists, but of course that's not at all why she did it. She dyed her hair because she felt trapped inside everybody else's perception of her as the shy, quiet, yearbook-committee-joining good-girl. She did it because she felt that altering her appearance could somehow free her to be a different person.

Fairy tales are largely responsible for this fantasy, I think. Cinderella can be a scullery maid or a princess - it all depends on her gown and glass slippers. In "The Goose Girl," a maid forces a princess to trade dresses with her, and when they arrive at the palace, nobody questions their identity-swap. Even in "Little Red Riding Hood" the nameless heroine is less important than her defining attire. More accurately, perhaps, we might say that the heroine is her attire.

There is something intoxicating about the idea of recreating oneself with a simple change of clothing and, perhaps, hairstyle. My favourite stories have always been makeover stories: books like The Blue Castle or movies like Strictly Ballroom in which the dowdy heroine sheds her braces and limp locks and emerges as an independent, self-defined and compellingly beautiful swan.

Bub is not immune to the power of this fantasy. His favourite stories may not offer many make-up tips, but the common element is the moment of metamorphosis. For months after watching Brother Bear he would freeze in the middle of an activity, a far-away look in his eye, then turn slowly on the spot before announcing, in a hushed whisper, "I turned into a bear!" When his fascination with Brother Bear waned, the Incredible Hulk took its place. Bub was quick to recognize the link between anger and power, the way anger transforms mild-mannered Bruce Banner into a monster of enormous strength. The Incredible Hulk is not really a good story for small children. I'm just saying.

When we asked Bub what he wanted to be for Halloween this year, he answered immediately and decisively, "The Green Lantern." This response was surprising for a couple of reasons: (a) Bub rarely responds to questions about his preferences or about such shadowy, hypothetical future events as Halloween; (b) I'm not entirely sure who the Green Lantern is. He's a superhero, but is he one of the SuperFriends? What, exactly, are his powers? How did Bub become so well acquainted with him as to form a definite and unchanging desire to become him for Halloween?

"Did you cut the green shirt yet?" Bub asked hubby a few mornings ago. We exchanged glances. Hubby had told Bub about his costume plans, but we hadn't realized that Bub was actually listening. Not only was he listening, but he has become strongly attached to the idea. When asked what he's going to be for Halloween, his answer is always the same: "Daddy's going to cut the green shirt, and I'm going to turn into the Green Lantern!"

The Green Lantern costume has become something of a project for hubby. He has debated the various versions of the costume (Alan Scott vs. Hal Jordan); he has confiscated every round object from the kitchen in order to trace out the perfect logo. The costume is still very much a work in progress right now, but the bones of it are there: a shirt and pants in black, stretchy fabric; a green vest and matching boot-covers. When we showed it to Bub he stood stock-still and then breathed, "I love it!" He pulled it on, paused expectantly, and then his face fell. "I don't like this," he glowered. "I'm taking it off."

It's possible that Bub doesn't like the sensation of the stretchy fabric on his skin. But I think the real explanation for his sudden aversion to his Green Lantern costume is the let-down: he thought that the costume would allow him to transform, to metamorphose into somebody strong and powerful: a superhero. There's nothing more crushing than to pull on a new set of clothes only to find yourself unchanged: just a small boy dressed up in Nike workout gear and a shirt with holes cut in the sides of it.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Senseless Acts of Self-Discipline

  • I won't let myself check last Sunday's crossword answers until this Sunday's crossword is complete. This is not a superstition - luck has nothing to do with it - and it's not a reward - completing the crossword is its own reward - but it's an ingrained habit in the same class as brushing my teeth before bed.

  • I make steel-cut oatmeal every weekend, but I won't make it on a weekday morning, even if I have time. Monday to Friday, it's Multigrain Life cereal for me.

  • I have a sample of EasyGlide dental floss that I keep in my cosmetic bag for when I go on vacation. The rest of the time, I use the cheaper mint-flavoured Johnson & Johnson. Frugality is a possible motive for this one, but considering my lax habits in all my other spending, there's still a certain senselessness to this lone act of penny-pinching.

  • When I'm craving an apple, I often decide not to eat one on the grounds that I should save healthy food like that for the children.

  • When I buy a home-decorating magazine, I make myself read all the articles, even the ones I'm not interested in. (However, I no longer force myself to finish reading books I'm not enjoying, abandoning them as soon as something better comes along. Recent books to receive this treatment are The Birth House, Effigy, and Eat, Pray, Love, any of which I may return to if my stash of more compelling reads dwindles sufficiently.) (Furthermore, I don't apply this "get your money's worth" reasoning to food: if I am full, or I'm not enjoying the meal I ordered in a restaurant, I never force myself to keep eating.)

  • I never throw out a set of pyjamas. I still own (and occasionally wear) flannel nightgowns that date back to the 1980s.

What about you? What senseless forms of self-discipline do you practise?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nice, But Not Friendly

It's a friendly workplace I'm in this term. And it's kind of freaking me out.

Most of my teaching this year is at a small college that prides itself on exceptional personal commitment to students. Perhaps "incestuous" is too negative a term to describe the atmosphere - let's go with "close-knit." When class ends and I'm busy packing away my textbooks, the prof for the next class invariably comes bounding in with a cheerful greeting of, "How are your classes going so far?"

I'm not good in these situations. Clearly, the appropriate response would be to reciprocate the friendly inquiry, but instead I freeze. I say "Fine" and then stand there silently for a minute or two searching for something else to add before giving up and exiting in haste.

At the faculty meeting last week a colleague expressed surprise that we had never spoken before. Both of us have been teaching there for several years - her face is very familiar to me - but we've never been formally introduced. "I'm just an antisocial person," I explained. "I arrive late for meetings and then skulk out as fast as I can."

"Your face is deceptive, then," she replied. "You look friendly!"

I shook my head. "I'm not friendly. I'm nice, but I'm not friendly."

My problem - and it's not an uncommon one, I realize - is that I have no small talk. If I arrive ten minutes before class and find my students milling about in the hallway, I'll duck into the photocopy room just to avoid the awkwardness of either making conversation or standing silently wondering if I should START making conversation. This behaviour, which I thought was so subtle as to be undetectable, attracted a certain amount of unfavourable comment in my student evaluations last year. The word "hiding" was used (not without some justification).

One of the more lasting side effects of motherhood for me is the freedom it provides from my usual tongue-tied demeanour. Though completely unable to engage in casual repartee about the weekend or the weather, I am never at a loss for words when confronted with a baby. One of my summer students this year became a grandmother midway through our course: her sixteen-year-old daughter had a baby girl after twelve hours of labour with no epidural. As standoffish as I can be in most situations, I have no problem hitting a pregnant woman or a new mother with a barrage of nosy questions. I've read enough blog posts to know that many women find these questions intrusive, but it's almost as if the presence of a baby (in or ex utero) turns my personality inside out.

The secretary at Friendly College is a woman whose father was the pastor of the church I grew up in: I used to babysit her and her siblings when I was in Grade Seven, and her mother taught me Sunday School all through high school. This is exactly the kind of person I have the most difficulty interacting with: a distant acquaintance with whom I don't share any current circumstances that might provide conversation fodder. Most of last year, I jumped guiltily every time I saw her, knowing that I ought to make friendly conversation yet wholly unable to do so. This year, however, it's different: she's due in November, only a few days before Bub's birthday. When I saw her the other day in the faculty lounge, I pounced. "Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" "Do you have a midwife or an OB?" "Will this be the first grandbaby for your parents?" "Which hospital are you delivering at?" At least I didn't ask to touch her belly. Even I have some boundaries.

I don't know if the poor woman really welcomed my interrogation, but I think I know why I can ask these questions even though I can never bring myself to ask my students how their weekend went. It's because I really want to know the answer.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On the Way Home From School

Me: So Pie, did you play with anybody today at your preschool?

Pie: No. Just by myself.

Me: Do you want to play with the other kids, or would you rather play by yourself?

Pie: By myself.

Me: Pie, which do you like better - Brenda's house [her old caregiver] or the new preschool?

Pie: (enthusiastically) Brenda's house!!!

Me: Why?

Pie: I like the kids there. I like Allie ... and Selma! I like Selma.

Me: Maybe you'll like some of the kids at your new preschool once you get to know them.

Pie: No. I can only like two. Allie and Selma. Those are two.

Me: Hey Bub - which do you like better? Nursery school or kindergarten?


Me: Bub? Are you there?

Bub: I can't talk.

Pie: (taken aback) But you have a mouf. And you just did talk!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Bumbling Amateur

I'm such a novice at this kindergarten thing. I'm the mom who forgets the hat and sunscreen, who sends a snack that requires a spoon, who arrives five minutes late for the second day of kindergarten because, as it turns out, fifteen minutes ahead of time is not soon enough to start bundling a four-year-old and a three-year-old into the car for a three-minute drive.

I can't even remember what those hand-out things are called, the ones the teacher sends home with forms to fill out and calendars of important dates. Take-home papers? That doesn't sound right. Do they have a name, those things?

I'm the mom who forgets to take a photo for the first day of school, who sends her son off in a t-shirt and denim shorts, forgetting until it's too late that there is supposed to be a ritual to this first day of school, even when it's just a half-day of kindergarten. (Especially then.)

I could have arranged Bub at the front door, with our unpaved driveway and unsodded lot as a backdrop. I might even have gotten him to put on his Cars backpack and say "Cheese!" But that photo would not have captured the look of glee on his face as he ran to do lunges with the other kids for their morning "exercises". It would not have caught his tone of voice at the end of the day when his E.A. said "See you tomorrow!" and he replied, "To have more fun?" A snapshot might have caught something of the new jauntiness in his step, the confidence of being a bona fide big kid. It could not possibly have reflected the full measure of my relief.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

You Learn Something New Every Day

Bub: But Mama, on TV it says Frogs Bunny.
Me: No, Bub. It really doesn't.
Bub: (stunned disbelief)