Friday, January 30, 2009

My Myers-Briggs Analysis of HGTV

Ever since we switched from cable to satellite TV, our service has been patchy at best. The channel guide works maybe 50% of the time, the picture goes wonky whenever we switch back from a gaming console, and the whole system needs to be reset periodically (often during Survivor). But even by those standards, the television's behaviour over the Christmas holidays seemed odd. Whenever I sat down to watch some Home and Garden Television, the channel would spontaneously switch, halfway through a show, to a football game or Spike TV. It was like I was in that stereotypical battle for the remote, but not even with my own husband - with the TV itself.

Eventually it was hubby's secretary who solved the problem. Her daughter is dating our new next-door-neighbour, a young single guy who owns a local restaurant. "Are you having any trouble with your TV?" she asked hubby one day. It turns out our satellite was on the same channel as Joel's. Joel's mother works at the library, and she filled me in on the details: "Whenever he tried to watch a show," she explained, "it kept switching over to HGTV!"

I find it amusing to think of poor Joel next door, trying to enjoy a beer and a football game but forced repeatedly to watch the Sarah's House marathon. It all makes sense now - those times I would repeatedly hit "channel return," only to find myself switched back again to TSN. HGTV is, by definition, girl TV. It's not quite as openly girly as the W network, but almost.

It has been a bit surprising to me, then, that so many of the shows focus on a central male figure. There are the gay designers, of course, but there is also a host of macho men of the kind featured in Canadian Tire Christmas commercials, the ones who go to sleep on Christmas Eve with visions of power tools dancing in their heads. Mike Holmes, for instance, is shown in the opening credits of Holmes on Homes wielding what I would be inclined to call a pneumatic drill (though it may be something else entirely). "Judge ... jury ... and trusted contractor," the commercials call him, as he scours the country looking for examples of shoddy workmanship so he can make it right.

Mike Holmes is the macho sentimentalist, that staple of Super Bowl locker rooms. I'm not sure that athletes in any sport other than football are ever quite so nakedly emotional, possibly because none of them get to wear those giant shoulder pads. The same principle applies to home-renovation shows: only the men wielding the biggest power tools get to wallow in sentimental feel-good plotlines about helping hapless homeowners with their renovation nightmares. (Ty Pennington is another prime example, for you Americans out there.) At the end of each episode, Mike enjoys a long hug from the lady of the house he has just cleansed of mould and damp, followed by a closing reflection on how good it feels to help people in need.

There's nothing especially ground-breaking about this particular blend of macho masculinity and emotional sentimentality, but what fascinates me about Mike Holmes is that he is so classic an SJ. In Myers-Briggs terms, SJs are detail-oriented, concrete thinkers who embrace rules, regulations, and black-and-white thinking. This is exactly what you want in a contractor: someone who pays close attention to detail, firmly believes that there is one right way to do everything, and takes pride in doing a job properly. "Proper" is in fact Mike's favourite word. "That's proper, isn't it?" he'll say appreciatively at the end of a job, admiring his own work not so much for its aesthetic value as for its strict adherence to the One Right Way.

If Mike Holmes is a classic SJ male, Peter Fallico of Home to Flip is a not-quite-so classic SP. A flipper is, by definition almost, an opportunist, someone looking to make a quick buck, comfortable with risk but with an eye on the bottom line. SPs, according to Myers-Briggs, are practical rather than idealistic, but unlike the SJs they are spontaneous risk-takers, and they are most comfortable working for themselves rather than taking orders from authority figures. Flipping a house requires considerable organizational skills, so Peter does not run quite so true to the MBTI stereotype as Mike, but there's something ever-so-slightly crooked about him that shouts SP to me.

Much like Mike Holmes, however, Peter Fallico is both macho and unexpectedly feminine. He is the purest kind of capitalist, stereotypically masculine not in the power-tool-wielding sense but rather in his unabashed focus on making money. At the same time, when he clashes with his designer Ulya, it's often because his taste is more girly than hers: on the episode where he redesigned his front porch, his brainchild was to sew and install curtain panels. Ulya wrinkled her nose and made reference to Little House on the Prairie, but Peter, undeterred, purchased the fabric and offered viewers a quick how-to on sewing your own curtains.

There is some kind of lesson buried in here, I'm sure, about how heterosexual masculinity is constructed in our culture as a kind of smorgasbord where so long as you heap enough roast beef on your plate you're allowed to help yourself to a serving of strawberry shortcake. This seems like maybe it's something everybody but me already knew, and perhaps I'm only discovering it now because the men in my life have chosen so differently, taking a main course of stoicism and logic rather than sports and power tools. It turns out that masculinity is like one of those set menus restaurants offer on New Year's Eve, where if you order logic as a main course you don't get to have emotion for dessert.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Turns Out, My Job is Kind of Silly

I dropped by a friend's house for lunch the other day on my way to work. Her youngest two kids are the same age as mine, and until recently she stayed at home with them, but has since gone to work part-time at Starbucks. On Mondays, though, she's home with her two youngest and willing to serve me a bowl of tomato soup in exchange for some conversation and an occasional offering of chocolates or cookies. So when I arrived this week, the kids were delighted to see me. Was I going to stay and play with them? Did I bring them anything yummy to eat? Unfortunately not - I could come in for lunch, but then I would have to go to work.

My friend's daughter looked at me sorrowfully. "It's sad when people have to go to work," she observed, "especially mothers." (You can see why returning to the work force nearly gave my friend a nervous breakdown. I've never seen so sincere and finely tuned a guilt trip, much less from a three-year-old.)

"Do you work at Starbucks?" her five-year-old son asked.

"No," I said. "I'm a teacher. I teach some big kids - the biggest kids of all."

This, in my experience, always comes as a bolt from the blue to the kindergarten set. My own children generally respond to this announcement with a moment of stunned silence, and then shake their heads laughing, "Nooooo." I'm not sure what they think I do when I go to work, but they flatly refuse to believe it involves teaching anybody anything. So when I told Ben that I was a teacher of big kids, I expected some opposition.

"You mean ... teenagers?" he squeaked. I shook my head.

"Not even. Bigger kids than teenagers."

He pondered that for a second. "You mean, you teach adults? But I thought adults knew everything already!"

He continued to chew over this amazing information as we sat down at the table for our lunch. "So," he asked, "do you teach the adults where everything comes from and how it works?"

Um, no. Actually I teach them to read books and poems, and then to write essays about them. It's a very important job, but I can't exactly explain why.

Ben's face brightened. "You teach them how to write books?"

Not really. Let's maybe not talk about my job anymore and just eat our lunch.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Signs That You're a Blogging Geriatric

  • Your blogroll could aptly be titled, "Our Fallen Comrades...Lest We Forget."

  • You still have a blogroll...and you can't update it because you don't remember your Blogrolling password.

  • The word "Bitacle" still makes shivers run down your spine.

  • Checking Bloglines makes you feel like your grandmother reading the newspaper: you turn first to the obituaries to see who's the latest to close up shop.

  • Whenever you write a post, you have the vague feeling that maybe you've said exactly these things before, but you can't remember when.

  • You have a few sharp-eyed readers who will actually remember the post where you used exactly those words and ideas two years ago.

  • Having resisted the lure of Facebook, you're now stodgily refusing to open up a Twitter account. (Are they even called accounts? I can't keep up with all the lingo you kids speak these days.)

  • You've outgrown the urge to update your blog template every season. Instead, you're all, "If this orange-and-brown colour scheme looked good in 2006, that's good enough for me."

  • If there were a Wii Fit for blogging, you're pretty sure you'd clock in at around 78 years of age.

What about you? What's your age in bloggy years?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Playing Favourites

"I like that blue," Pie said gravely, staring into the innards of our toilet. This is her new thing - whenever she flushes the toilet, she wants me to lift the lid from the tank so she can watch the water level rising all the way to the blue plastic cap at the top. "I like that blue, and I like that black."

"You like colours, don't you," I observed. "Do colours make you happy?"

"Yeah," Pie mused. "It's like, 'Hey! Purple! I like that!'"

Indeed. That is exactly what it is like: her life summed up in a nutshell. Pie is the pink and purple police, constantly scanning her environment for pastel-coloured objects. When she finds one - even in books that she reads every night - she must stop and point it out: "I like that pink. I like that purple."

This, clearly, is an inherited trait. I imagine it even serves a Darwinian purpose. If I had been born in a hunter-gatherer society, I would have been the one to save the tribe from scurvy by scanning the environment for wild lemon trees. If all that stood between my family and starvation were a few half-buried yellow peppers, I would be the one to spot them first.

It's a bit harder to imagine how a preference for pink or purple would confer a survival advantage. Perhaps they help to attract a mate? The most confounding colour preferences, though, are green and brown. Green and brown are everywhere; it's hard to see how our pleasure in these colours serves any kind of biological purpose.

The joy of colour seems related to what theologians sometimes call "the problem of pleasure." If theists must account for the presence of pain and suffering in a world created by a loving God, then atheists must equally account for the surfeit of pleasure our world offers us. Some pleasures, to be sure, have a clear biological payoff, but others seem like a tantalizing excess, a pure gift. They speak to the presence of something transcendent in our relationship to our physical environment.

I was advised, once, to thank God for my favourite colour. Ever since that day, the concept of praise has made more sense to me. Praise involves thankfulness not so much for what we have as for everything that is. To praise God for creating the colour yellow not only allows me to perceive something joyous and vibrant in the Creator, but also to recognize a connectedness between me, personally, and the world around me. One of the reasons that God created the colour yellow was because I, individually, would enjoy it so much.

Favourite colours, though, are a bit of a mystery to me. Not everyone has one, and I'm not sure that sufficient psychological studies have been done to determine why and how some people bond so passionately and permanently to a single colour. I have never wavered in my preference for yellow, which I know was well-established by the time I was three, the age Pie is now. Pie's preference for pink and purple may not be equally long-lasting: right now, her devotion to these colours is an expression of gender identity as much as aesthetic taste - she likes pink and purple (and is compelled to say so aloud at every opportunity) because doing so helps define for her who she is and where she fits into her social environment. She likes pink and purple at least in part because she believes that this is what all girls do. I, on the other hand, have always appreciated the idiosyncracy of my preference for yellow. My best friend prefers green; her sister likes orange. For all of us, this favourite colour business is a defining quirk - if I were to suddenly start preferring blue to yellow, I would no longer be me - the next thing you know I'd join a volleyball team and start leaving my bed unmade in the morning.

I've been revisiting my paint chips lately, conferring madly with Mad about the colours for her new kitchen. It's a bit of a relief to me to discover that paint chips are equally compelling to me whether they are for my house or someone else's. Colour has been a source of pleasure for me since I was small, and it's reassuring to know that such pleasure can be detached from the shallower lures of consumerism and acquisition.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Boy and His Band-Aid

It started in early December. Bub came sprinting up the stairs, howling in agony. "Part of my thumb," he panted, "it came OFF!" He held up his thumb, and the nail was split halfway down. I quickly pulled out a box of Batman Band-Aids and calm was restored.

Fast forward three weeks. The thumb is now perfectly healed. The nail has grown in, and Bub has even permitted me to trim it. It's time, I tell him, to stop replacing the Band-Aid.

I've been looking forward to this day for weeks. Bub is no fool. He knows that when he washes his hands, his Band-Aid is at risk for falling off, so he has become determined to avoid washing his hands by any and all means necessary, including not going pee ever again. His faith in the Band-Aid is also (naturally) tied to the Batman logo: if the Band-Aid falls off while he's at school or out Christmas shopping, no regular Band-Aid will do - on one outing I had to make an unplanned pit-stop at the grocery store to buy an emergency supply.

So when I announce that we're quitting the Band-Aid cold turkey, Bub predictably falls apart at the seams. His thumb is no longer injured, but it is cold. He needs the Band-Aid to warm it up (this from a boy who flatly refuses to wear mittens when he goes outside). I hold firm - it's time to move on, get back on the wagon and leave the Batman Band-Aid security blanket behind. Distracted by a strategically planned episode of Transformers, he appears to agree. It's several hours, actually, before I realize that he has snuck back into the kitchen, stood on a chair to get the Band-Aid box out of the tall cupboard, used scissors to open the packaging, and replaced the Band-Aid himself. It's an impressive feat of planning and dexterity, but it also means we are back to square one.

That was two weeks ago. We are now up to three Band-Aids. A scuffle with Pie bent back the fingernail on his index finger, and a slight scratch to his other thumb brought our total up to three. All these injuries are now completely healed, but the Band-Aids remain. At this point, I'm shrugging my shoulders and using it to my advantage. I just hope no one calls child services on me when they hear me threatening my son, "Do you want me to take off your Band-Aid? Well okay then - get into the car."

Thursday, January 08, 2009


All week people have been asking me, "How was your Christmas?" and I've been answering, with somewhat startling and unnecessary enthusiasm, "It was awesome!" For two whole weeks I sat around at home with my kids and (sometimes) husband, and baked double-chocolate cookies, played Guitar Hero, watched hours of home-reno shows on my newly acquired "Lifestyle Package" of TV channels, and did two excessively difficult and kind of annoying jigsaw puzzles.

I can't remember the last time I've had so much time to play. To fiddle around, to sit around the house, to accomplish nothing useful.

The key, of course, the trick to all of this unheard-of leisure, is that while I was busy learning how to master "Welcome to the Jungle" on medium without being booed off the stage, my kids were busy too. Santa brought them a whole roster of Digimon toys, and so while I flipped back and forth between Kitchen Nightmares and Holmes on Homes they kept up an unbroken commentary of "Tentomon, digivolve to ... Kabuterimon!" and "I'll attack him with my Howling Blaster!"

For the first time in five years, I can spend time at home with my kids and it feels more like play than work. I still have to settle fights and heat up macaroni and cheese, but these are interruptions to the tenor of my day, not a full-time occupation. Hanging around at home on the weekend is starting to feel more like what I remember from my own childhood: downtime, time to fill with all kinds of meaningless and pleasurable puttering.

A year or so ago, a certain headline-grabbing study proclaimed that babies don't make their parents happy. Childless adults report the highest level of happiness, rivaled only by adults whose children have grown up and left home. In between those two eras of life, however, the study suggested that there is a period of time when one's happiness level recovers: after the children hit school-age but before teenage rebellion sets in, parents report levels of happiness that almost rival those of their childless counterparts.

We all wrote scathing posts about this study at the time, but I tucked away that little tidbit in my back pocket and have been secretly awaiting the happy school-age years with a certain amount of anticipation.

One of my post-Christmas leisure pursuits has been watching my way through a box set of Freaks and Geeks (how is it possible that I've lasted this long without watching this show?). The two main characters, a brother and a sister, are fourteen and sixteen respectively, and their parents are full of bad ideas. They persuade their ninth-grade son to ask a girl to the school dance; they think it's a good idea for their newly rebellious daughter to dress up in full costume for Halloween to help give out candy at the door. As parental advice-givers, they seem constantly to concoct new ways for their children to commit social suicide.

In one early episode, the mother sits glumly on Halloween night, looking at photographs of past Halloweens, her kids dressed up in costume, all eagerness and excitement. Meanwhile, her teenage daughter is out smashing pumpkins while her son is being pelted with eggs by local bullies. She's sad because she knows it is ending, that brief era of family life, that ten-year-window between the hard labour of infant care and the long twilight of adolescence. That era is just barely beginning for me, but already I can see the end on the horizon, a mere decade or so away.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Because I Am A Sheep

January: It’s hard to blog when you’re spending all your time compulsively checking the MLS listings and scanning online floor plans.

(Does this mean that if I do this meme again next year I'll have the SAME first sentence as this year? If so, it will still be accurate.)

February: It felt like a jailbreak, the escape from high school into the freedom and anonymity of university.

March: There's a certain stiffness of bearing that can only be seen when a jeans- and t-shirt-clad woman leaves the hair salon with a six-foot bridal veil attached to her head.

(Not much of a year in review, this. More of a life in review. But that particular first sentence was not an anniversary tribute to hubby but rather a metaphorical lead-in to my post on home-staging.)

April: I spent Earth Hour last weekend sorting through six months' worth of photos on hubby's computer.

Ho hum.

May: We turned the TV on last night for the first time in weeks.

So I immediately wrote a post about it.

June: They say there are no atheists in foxholes.

July: Last summer I was full of sentimental mourning for the transformation Bub was about to undergo as he entered nursery school.

August: First meal...

... at the new house.

September: Bub: But Mama, on TV it says Frogs Bunny.

October: "I never look back, darling," Edna tells Mr. Incredible.

November: My new favourite Shakespeare heroine is Emilia from Othello.

December: Has anyone noticed how the morning newspaper has turned into a morality play?

So, am I the only one who kept accidentally copying the first sentence from the last post of the month (i.e. the one at the top of the archive page)? This meme is hard.