Friday, January 30, 2009

Hi, my name is Allison, and I love Twilight

Oh, the burning shame and humiliation. I'd rather confess to pinching babies or tipping pregnant women. Everybody I knew was doing it, but I was so smug, so sure that I was immune. I didn't make fun of them (everybody has their weaknesses) but I felt quietly superior. Come on... a girl and a vampire? And there was a werewolf? What else... she gets into a four-way with the vampire, the wolf and a mime? (hey, mimes are scary).

I have mentioned that I do like my junk-food lit. I like mysteries. I like science fiction and fantasy and sometimes horror. But I'm generally impervious to romances. Even if a mystery looks good, if the jacket copy mentions some ruggedly handsome detective solving the crime while fighting a dangerous attraction to the beautiful but wounded sister of the deceased, I'm out. I know there are only supposed to be seven stories and all the books in the world are only variations on those themes, but it seems to me that romances have an even more limited template than any other genre -- it's just hard to find variations interesting enough to hold my attention. I believe people when they say good ones are out there, I'll even read one if someone puts it in my hands with a strong recommendation, but I don't seek them out.

So what the hell was I doing in the checkout lane at Costco with that slick black cover smirking up at me from my basket? Beats the crap out of me. My husband was away, my kids were at birthday parties, I was sleep-deprived enough to have thought that killing two hours in Costco ON A SUNDAY was any kind of an idea... clearly my immunity was low. I was supposed to be shopping for something for dinner and what I ended up with was a teen romance, six bottles of body lotion and eighteen blueberry muffins (what the hell, I could always send Eve out hunting and foraging again, right?)

It was like sinking into a narcotic fog. I tried to pull away from it, but it was like quicksand. I've tried to figure it out, but I can't. I think maybe they've figured out a way to embed microscopic subliminal messages under the words. Because it's not like you can in any way articulate what's so freaking compelling about it. When you break the plot down, it sounds idiotic (go ahead, try it). So why is it like chocolate-covered crack?

At least it's not just me this time. I do have the occasional inexplicable lapse where something that would normally pass almost unnoticed gains a stranglehold on my psyche for some reason. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Buffy had to kill Angel? That laid me out for weeks (and now that I've told you that, I have to kill you). When I was pregnant with Angus, I was reading this fluffy mystery series about a female Egyptologist who excavated pyramids etc. with her hunky archaeologist husband and her son in the early nineteen hundreds. They adopted some orphaned girl, and as their son and adopted daughter grows up, you can see a romance developing between them. The author kept dragging it out so you'd think for sure THIS book couldn't end without them declaring their love, or kissing, or shaking hands or something and Jesus Christ, another book would end with agonizing repression and noble renunciations and aneurysm-inducing misunderstandings. And who gives a crap, but I was pregnant and hormonal and this author was at least in her sixties and I was seriously on the verge of writing her a letter saying look, lady, if you die before you get these people alone in a tent in the Biblical sense, I will be seriously vexed. I felt like I couldn't go on with my life until this got resolved.

I wonder if it's like that thing when pregnant women started eating raw potatoes and mustard or yak hair or whatever, because they're lacking some vitamin or enzyme that they don't know about. When I was pregnant with Eve I had an overwhelming desire to abuse inhalants. Also, we were refinishing the basement and I could barely restrain myself from licking the drywall dust (I know, I know). I found out later that this was indicative of severe anemia -- unfortunately I was afraid my midwife would lock me up if I confessed, so I was gazing longingly at my baby powder for way longer than was necessary (once at Kelsey's the waitress asked if I wanted my wings 'dusted' and I almost kissed her).

I think I might really be onto something here. There must be some periodic momentary deficiency in my psychological make-up that makes me occasionally susceptible to sappy, overwrought romances. I don't think it's actually lack of romance -- I never actually want to be the character, and if I actually want romance it's not hard to get it (or a reasonable facsimile); plus, the drywall dust wasn't actually going to raise my iron levels (I don't think). Maybe I can get some kind of syndrome named after me -- maybe there's a vaccine!

So there you go. It's not my fault. I feel so much better.

Besides, I'm sure I can quit any time.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Life-Sucking Inferiority Complex Always Rings Twice

Correct me if I'm wrong, but for most people, an appointment with an appliance repairman is a mild pain in the ass, not a life-rearranging event, right?

I suspect that I'm really quite ill.

I always pray that they'll show up the first five minutes in that four-hour window because otherwise it's four hours of feeling like I'm about to be photographed and interviewed for Freaks and Losers Magazine. What's he going to think of my hair? Is he going to think I'm fat? I have to vacuum and dust the laundry room plus everything in the path from the door to the laundry room. I have to make sure Eve isn't watching television because I don't want him to think I'm one of those mothers who lets her kids watch television during the day (I totally am one of those mothers). I have to look busy while he's here, like I'm cleaning or teaching my kid Chinese or brokering some kind of major real estate transaction.

Don't most people just let the guy in and go about their business? Am I descending to the point where I'm going to be stopping homeless people on the street and asking them if they think I'm a bad person? (no offense to homeless people -- I've met several who are more self-confident and less whiny than I am). Where does this insatiable and deranged need for external validation come from? Why can't I just accept that I do some things quite well (squash soup), I do a lot of things really badly (volleyball, public speaking, sleeping and waking up and hey, not like THAT takes up half your life), and not everybody I meet is going to like me and THAT'S OKAY (ha ha, do some people really convince themselves of that crap?)

The dryer's fixed. The guy reeked of smoke. He seemed to like me okay, though. I mean, he didn't say anything, but I'm pretty sure we exchanged a glance that was neutral verging on amicable.

When we're home or out anywhere together, Eve stops what she's doing every twenty minutes or so to come and hug me and say 'I love you Mama' and waits until I say it back, which I do, gladly. But I also sort of think 'oh sweetie, don't be emotionally needy like your mother, it makes life and relationships and basic home maintenance so exhausting'. Let's not even talk about what happens when I need to get the piano tuned.

Night everyone. Love you all. If you don't love me back, no problem (but you do, right?)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Yeah, childhood bites, what else is new?

What kind of swimsuit do you wear to wallow in the self-pity pool?
Who was that silly optimistic woman who blathered on about her and the kids being a quiet, contained island of mutual adoration and contentment? We're sinking into a slum of despair. There are footprints on the wall, the powder room smells like pee and I have a creeping rash on my torso (overshare? -- sorry). Today Eve told me the soap in the powder room was empty and she had to change it, in much the same tone she might use to tell me there was no food in the house and she had to go out and slaughter a moose for dinner. Angus and I tried to practice his book talk for tomorrow and I made him cry. How much do I suck? Let me count the ways. To top it off, now I'm watching the end of House before I put the kids to bed when it's already ten minutes past their bedtime -- I'm a monster. I will now give a bitchy, mean-spirited book review to match my mood. A person I dislike quite strongly recommended this book to me (five years ago -- I didn't read it on his recommendation). I wonder if that has anything to do with me not liking it. Or maybe it's all the filth and premenstrual hormones.
by Andre Alexis
To put it as succinctly as possible, I thought the writing in this book was great, the characters were unlikeable, and the story was annoying. Tom is dumped on his cantankerous, volatile grandmother as a baby, experiences a loveless childhood until her death, when his mother Katarina returns to reclaim him. He then experiences a confusing adolescence with his mother and Henry Wing, a gentle and peculiar man who adores his mother and gives Tom free reign in his large library and laboratory. Tom now lives a peculiar adulthood in Henry's house, following a strict regimen of sleeping, waking, eating, reading and writing. He mentions a "you" whom he allegedly loves, to whom he is telling the story of his life.
I find the process of memory interesting. How we remember and mis-remember, different people having conflicting accounts of the same event, this kind of thing is interesting. It seemed to me that for every period of his life, Tom would say "I don't remember much of these years" or "I remember so little of this period it might as well have been lived for me". This is not interesting. This is obvious and unnecessary to say. Perhaps the lack of affection shown to him in his formative years by his strange and demanding grandmother explains his detached, rather cold view of others. Certainly it's not surprising that he would be ambivalent towards his mother, but he doesn't give the reader enough to form an independent opinion. I found his attitude towards Henry, the man who never treated him with anything but tenderness and respect, annoying also. It's not uncommon for children to view permissive adults with a certain contempt, but later when Henry is older and infirm and asks for his help he doesn't show any more affection. The narrator may be troubled, but he comes across largely as a cold fish, and while that may have been the point, it left me cold as well.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Do you want attitude with that?

I do not love mankind.

That's the first line of a book I really like (The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken). I've always thought of myself as a nice person -- to my family and friends, but also to humanity at large. I let other drivers in front of me, I try not to block the aisle with my grocery cart, I pick things up when pregnant women drop them. I like to be helpful, for its own sake as well as for the "oh, you're so sweet" element, which I do also enjoy. I try not to be overly judgemental. I look for the best in people.

Until they piss me off.

A few years back I realized something sort of unpleasant about myself. I was working at Chapters (no, that's not it, although it was very unpleasant at times). We had just moved to Ottawa and I had just left a job in audio publishing where I was advancing quite quickly due to the fact that the boss was crazy and threw books at people and employees kept objecting to this and leaving. As attractive as this situation must sound, I got married and moved to Ottawa with my husband (which is probably just as well because I realized right before I left that I had approved the wrong label copy for a Jimi Hendrix rockumentary and God knows what they would have done to me). And got a job at Chapters, for my sins. Before the crazy audio publisher I had worked in a charming little independent bookstore in Toronto, but none of the independents were hiring here, and I needed something I could take the bus to, and there were BOOKS there, how bad could it be?

It was quite bad.

At the interview, I said they should hire me because books were my life and I understood the importance of customer service. If someone has three or four errands to run in a day, I said beamingly, whether they get good service or bad service at those three or four places sets the tone for their entire day. Good customer service makes the sun shine and puppies frolic and makes the world go around. Also, I had this newspaper article from when some guy from the Quill & Quire did a secret shopper thing at area bookstores and said I was the best bookseller he met and I was knowledgeable and nice and helpful (see?), and everyone at my store knew it was me but he never asked my name (story of my life). So they hired me, either because of these reasons or because I had a pulse and I looked like they could get a few good months out of me before they squeezed me totally dry and lifeless.

I was in the children's section, so there were fun parts. I did story time, my displays were the most fun, I had unlimited access to Dr. Seuss. And most of the kids were great. The parents, on the other hand.... I know working retail can really suck. I've often wondered why, if someone is having a crappy day, they think, "I know! I'll go make the frozen yogurt girl's life hell! That will really perk me up!". But there's something especially wrong about people being bitchy and mean in a bookstore -- as far as I'm concerned, it's sort of like swearing in church. So when someone came in, I was ready with a smile, and if they were nice they were served like they'd never been served before, because I hadn't had kids yet, I was still smart and I knew a LOT about books. But if they came at me with a "there MUST be a book about left-handed bald men who like boats", or a "well no, she doesn't like the first six books you picked for her, find another one", or a "I will now hold you personally responsible for the fact that the newspapers are a mess and you don't have enough French books", then that was it. Oh, I would still help them, but unenthusiastically, and I held the best book recommendations back, because they clearly didn't deserve them. If I was on cash, I punched in the prices in a very snippy manner.

Okay, this sounds really stupid now that I've set it all out -- big surprise, I'm nice to people who are nice. But really, that's the easy part, right? My friend J. tells a fantastic story about her father-in-law, who went out for a walk around the neighbourhood on New Year's Day and said "Happy New Year" to everyone he met. If someone didn't answer, as he passed them he said "well, go to Hell then!". It's a good story, but it's not really the life philosophy I'm striving for. So I'm trying to be more forgiving (even though people who don't smile back when you put yourself out there and smile at them are, in my book, the meanest people in the world -- unless they've just been diagnosed with cancer or found out their wife is cheating on them or something -- sometimes I forget to allow for that).

More than anything, those people who park their grocery cart in the middle of the aisle and take five minutes browsing the soup, or the ones who cut in front of you in line, or the ones who talk during the movie just confuse me. Do they genuinely enjoy pissing other people off? Are they even more self-absorbed than I am? (that hardly seems possible). Are they just really not very bright? Regardless, I'm working on rising above it all. I will be nice to the un-nice masses. I will dispense kindness to the undeserving.

Hard not to adore me, isn't it?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

I'm SURE that border is irregular!

My mother just forwarded me this email about some woman who drank out of a can of pop without washing it and had a seizure or something and died and it turned out the can had dried rat urine on it, which begs the question.... has my mother freakin' MET me? My husband is AWOL (well, with begrudging leave), it's minus a million out, it's like mounting the goddamned Franklin expedition getting Angus to hockey in the morning, and she wants me to spend the few hours I have to sleep washing cans and obsessing about rat urine. Thanks, Mom. Did I mention that one of the manifestations of my anxiety is massive hypochondria? Every few months I'm absolutely for sure this time dying of something. It sounds funny, which it kind of is, except for that part of the experience where I really believe it. The internet is not a thing the stay-at-home hypochondriac should be allowed access to. Pretty much across the board, you look something up and the symptoms include joint pain, fatigue and having a nose -- I have them all. Except tongue cancer. I heard about tongue cancer and a couple of weeks later I had a weird spot on my tongue and I looked it up and there was no way in the world it could have been tongue cancer.

That was a good day.
I think the point people miss about hypochondriacs is that they're not just pretending to be sick -- they really think they are sick. My sister (the brilliant pharmacist) told us a story about a doctor she met that dealt with psychosomatically ill people, and the approach was to give them something that would treat the illness if they had it or force them to admit that they didn't actually have it. So one woman said 'no, I believe you that it's all in my head, but I still feel it, so how does that help me?' Take that, smartass doctor.

It's strange how at the time it seems certain and rational, and looking back it seems so pocketful-of-crazy. I spent half of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat freaking out about a mole on my shoulder that suddenly seemed scaly and sinister. I couldn't wait to get out of there and go to the walk-in clinic on the way home (well, it was Joseph. I don't think the same thing would have happened at Miss Saigon). Breast self-exams are really just a disaster waiting to happen for me. Then there's MS, Parkinson's, ovarian cancer -- I'll be sitting in bed trying to read and my insides keep going cold thinking of the things that could be desperately wrong with me.

After countless repetitions of this really quite tedious cycle, I've started to recognize what's happening, which helps. A little. My sense of irony allows me to conclude that the likelihood that I will actually turn out to be dying one of these times when I think I'm dying is extremely low. It would totally shut my husband up, though (See? See? I told you I had prostate cancer!!!).

I've also realized that when I go to my doctor (a kind and very very patient woman) I'm not only looking for her to tell me I don't have cancer right now; what I really want is for her to say you're never going to get cancer.

I don't know where else to go from there without getting really cheesy and melodramatic (the real sickness is the fear that's eating up my life! I need to heal the fear!). So if you'll excuse me, after that exhausting moment of insight, I'm going to bed. Right after I google diabetic retinopathy.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Are you sure it doesn't mean inside the body?

Today at lunch Eve turned to me and announced that she had learned what "eternal" meant: It means when twins don't look the same. There are two kinds of twins: eternal and hi-dentical.
by Elise Blackwell

I have a weakness for small, beautiful, matte-paper hardback books. While I'm reading them I can't stop smoothing my fingers over the cover paper. Sometimes my husband asks if the book and I would like to be alone.
The prose is spare and somehow cold in this book. Reading it feels somehow akin to walking through the frigid, snow-dusted squares of a Russian city. It makes you feel cold and sad and hungry.
The unnamed narrator is a scientist who collects plants and seeds to be stored safely and kept for posterity at the Research Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad. His wife and mistress both work at the Institute as well. The novel concerns the siege of Leningrad by German troops in 1941, when food becomes so scarce that people are reduced to unthinkable measures in order to stay alive.
The narrator does not present himself as a man beyond reproach, which makes the story chillingly realistic. He details ways in which he acted both with bravery and cowardice throughout the 'hunger winter' and admits without melodrama that he raided the stores of grains and rice which he was entrusted with protecting in order not to starve to death. The image of him chewing on hard rice kernels with his malnutrition-loosened teeth is viscerally distrubing. He also describes notice boards where people offer to trade work, heirlooms, bodies and souls for foods -- "The bravery to survive is a ruthless one. Martyrdom leads, by its very definition, only to the cold ground".
The story is full of potent images, such as the trees in the city stripped of bark for a dubious food source, so that they are naked and skeletal. There are heartening stories of "tremendous sacrifice and honour" but also many which demonstrate, as the narrator believes, that "deprivation debases more often than it ennobles".
This is a story that provokes thought on the essential issues of what makes us human, and how little hardship is needed to strip away the veneer of civilization and reduce us to our basest instincts. Reading it in a place where food is readily available and easily wasted was an uncomfortable but rewarding experience.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Will they fit under his face guard?

I'm feeling uninspired today so I'm just changing the colours and fonts and hoping that will enhance your reading experience to the point where you won't really notice the quality of the writing.
photo credit
Day two husbandless: the already-read newspapers are piling up, the kitchen garbage doesn't magically empty itself every morning any more, and Angus needs glasses. Okay, I probably can't blame that last one on Matt being off skiing in the French Alps. Took the kids to the eye doctor. Eve was very nervous and unhappy on the way there -- I couldn't seem to convince her that they were just going to look at her eyes, not stick needles in them or remove them or anything. Naturally once we got there she climbed up and sat in the chair like it was her personal throne and kept saying "my eyes are great, really, I just want to see what kind of things you have here" and giggling like a sorority girl on ecstasy. Angus was calm on the way there, but took the whole business much more seriously. The eye doctor was shining a light in his eye and saying, okay, just look at my left ear while I do this and Angus was like, "your ear? I can't see your ear, where's your ear? OH MY GOD I CAN'T SEE AN EAR!!!" Apparently he's a little farsighted on the left and a little nearsighted on the right. Unbalanced, like his mother. Poor guy -- he's inherited my crappy eyesight as well as my penchant for treating every single occurrence as if it's a major league disaster. 
At one point the doctor was flipping through a book of numbers in red and green patterns, and Angus got all the left pages and none of the right, and the doctor explained the test and said we should keep an eye on it for possible colour blindness issues, then turned to the computer. I saw Angus looking at me and I said it's nothing to worry about and he said "so I don't have some kind of eye disease?" and I had to explain he's probably just like his father, and he will need a wife to dress him every day to avoid social ostracization, but other than that he's fine. Although if you saw some of the things both of them try to wear together, you'd really be forgiven for wondering about that.
I'm reading a cool book of science fiction stories by women, paired with essays about feminism in science fiction, but I can't remember the title right now. A little light on the Biblio, I know. Hey, my husband's away and I have the season premiere of Lost on the PVR. Priorities, people.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Plus, there was never anything good on TV

My husband just left last night for the next week and a half. Up until a couple of years ago, this would have been cause for much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I still do love a good teeth-gnashing, but adding those couple of years onto my kids has made a world of difference. When Angus was smaller, every time Matt went away he would wake up yelling for me in the middle of the night, generating a really unpleasant adrenaline jolt that would turn me into a really unpleasant mother trying to appear pleasant. It would take me hours to fall asleep, then he would wake me up, then it would take me hours to fall asleep again, usually about four minutes before he woke up for the day. Three nights was my absolute limit before I turned into that kid from the exorcist before the exorcism. Lifting kids in and out of the bath would kill my back, usually one or both would get sick or break a finger or something, plus there was no one around to yell at for leaving the milk out of the fridge or losing one mitten from every pair (except myself, and that would have frightened the children). When Matt called home and said "just calling to see if things are okay" I would snarl back "Why? It's not like you can do anything useful if they're not!". Nice, huh? Once on the evening he was supposed to be home, he called and said he was stranded for one more day in Toronto because of a snowstorm. I said okay, no problem, get home when you can. When he complimented me on this later I told him it was just because I was worried the plane would crash and the last thing I had said to him would have been bitchy. He said he didn't really care, he'd take it anyway, but it was a dishonest moment of graciousness.

It's much different now. My parents moved here a couple of years ago, which was better than winning the lottery. If one kid has to go to emergency, I have someone I can dump the kid on in the middle of the night who will then still speak to me the next morning. Sometimes the kids spend a night there, in which case I always plan to play the piano and have blissfully uninterrupted reading time and clean the house, and I usually end up wandering around missing the kids and whimpering over their neatly made beds and fully knowing what a dumb-ass I'm being.

Being alone with the kids is kind of cool now. We miss Matt, but for the kids it's kind of a neat break in the routine, and for me it's a chance to do everything my way and feel like a halfway competent mother. I still walk around in a fog of sleeplessness, but that okay -- it gives everything a misty, romantic glow. I read Eve her story every night and Angus reads me a story every night, they argue amicably over who's going to sleep in Daddy's spot, I generally know where everything is because I'm the only one who puts things away, and the three of us form this little island for a few days. Until Matt gets home and I disavow all knowledge of them while I recover (yes, yes, I love you too, now go away and let me read, Daddy has chocolate for you!)

That's perspective for you. My relationship with three o'clock has changed almost one hundred and eighty degrees from the time before I had kids. I have some depression and anxiety issues which occasionally get together, hump each other and produce one huge self-loathing issue (sorry -- too crass?). This also results in really fun sleeping issues. In the past, three o'clock of either persuasian (am or pm) seemed to ring the death knell to either the day or the night. At night, it was the hour that I saw and then pretty much gave up on anything resembling a restful night, so I would switch my focus from fall asleep fall asleep fall asleep RIGHT NOW to lovingly detailing how much the next day was going to suck. I think Ray Bradbury called three in the morning the time when "monsters eat your soul". As much as I love staying up late reading or wandering around in my house while everyone else is asleep, three a.m. is just not a good time to be awake in the dark. It feels scary and unwholesome.

In the day time, it was often the hour that made me feel like I had lost control of the day, wondering what the hell I had done with all those hours and if I was completely wasting my life and how to properly dispose of myself so I would have the least impact on the environment. Apparently the body experiences a natural energy dip between about three and five p.m., so that probably had something to do with it, but mostly it felt like another mile post against which I came up short -- no matter what I'd been doing, it was almost supper time and it didn't feel like I'd done enough.

When Angus was a newborn, I was a mess. It was all completely normal, but when you're doing it for the first time, it feels anything but normal. My stomach had been slit open like an envelope, my body had become a foot source, and this tiny, red, bellowing little thing that gained four pounds for every thirty seconds I held him was now moving in, forever, and not overly impressed with the service so far. Matt had five days off. Whoo-hoo. It was hard -- I didn't know what the hell I was doing, my lower back was on fire, and every time I felt like I'd spent two hours making funny faces at him, I'd check and six seconds had gone by. The days crawled by at first. But at three o'clock, we were over the hump -- Daddy would be home soon. My checklist of things to do for those days consisted of: Keep kid alive. At three o'clock it was : kid alive? check. Three o'clock was now a whole different animal -- the friendly furry gentle head-butting kind, rather than the scaly hissing venomous kind. Three o'clock a.m. was just another time to shove a boob in someone's mouth (usually the baby's) and then it was oh my God! it's 3 a.m. and he's still asleep! You must have jostled his liver against his kidney when you put him down and now he's dead! Angus gets home from school at three in the afternoon now. I still get tired, but that's okay, because now I usually feel like I goddamned well deserve a rest. We all have a break and then we start homework and dinner and discuss what happened at school (usually nothing. Almost nothing ever happens at school. They get there, they sit in their chairs and stare at the wall for six hours, then they come home.), who called who a doofus and whether Daddy's pretending or if he really does speak French that badly. Three o'clock is just the slight-past-mid-point of another day of me being a not-entirely-unfit mother and wife.

A few weeks ago ago I was reading Contact by Carl Sagan. The kids were at my Mom's and I was on the couch in the living room when there still was one. I don't remember everything all that well, except that there did seem to be evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence at the end, and that something from the message received leads the scientist to a point in pi (Pi - 3.14159265359 and so on and so on and so on) where the numbers become a pattern of ones and zeros, and it's sort of cool and mystical in some way that people who know math would understand.

Anyway, I finished the book, feeling happy and refreshed, then I walked into the kitchen and the digital clock said 3:14.


 I felt like I was getting my own message from the universe - like maybe three o'clock was saying "sorry for all the crap I put you through -- no hard feelings?"

Monday, January 19, 2009

Why don't they like me? Is it because I'm not pretty? It's because I'm not pretty, isn't it?!

I have a friend that I hung out with constantly from the time we met when our first kids were about two (almost seven years ago) until she had the nerve to go back to work a little over a year ago (I think -- time flies when you're being bitter and unreasonable). 

The stay-at-home Mom experience from a companionship point of view is all about timing. My friend Collette was totally screwed -- she had the first kid in our group. The rest of us were totally clueless and thus about as useful as a bag of hammers. We didn't know they didn't have time to cut open a bag of milk, let alone cook dinner. We bought them sleepers with thirty-four snaps instead of zippers. We called and asked if we could come and visit after seven o'clock at night (idiots! We were complete idiots!).

I had the second kid, so I was almost equally screwed, except I called Collette. She came over and picked up me and Angus and took us out of the house for two or three hours when he was six weeks old, for which I would have kissed her, with tongue, if I thought she'd enjoy that sort of thing. But she was pregnant with her second already, so my first six months with Angus was pretty lonely and desperate at times. Then a couple of others had kids. This was nice because: a) I knew exactly what they were going through, and I cooked them meals every week for six weeks and bought baby clothes that wouldn't strangle the kid or make a sleep-deprived parent cry; b) they realized how utterly unhelpful they had been with us and said oh my God! we had no idea! we should have gotten you groceries! we should have cleaned your bathroom! and I could have said no, no, it's fine, but I didn't I said you're right! You were completely useless and I hated you with the white-hot heat of a million suns!; and c) there was a blissful year or so when there a good pool of people to get together with. There's something about having other people to have tea and cookies with while talking and staring at your kids playing or drooling or strapped inanimately in car seat carriers that is, well, so much better than staring at your kid while eating cookies and talking to yourself (and trying not to pour the boiling water directly in your ear to just MAKE ALL THE LITTLE VOICES STOP!). Then some people go back to work (goddamned people who need their own challenges and interests and --what are they called -- thoughts!), then they sometimes have a second kid, and the community sort of evolves accordingly. But we were the holdouts. It was me and her against the world and four very crafty children.

Then she got a job.

It was hard. My husband travels a lot and my daughter is still home most of the day (my friend's kids went to French school, so they were full-time from JK), so I wasn't looking at going back to work yet (I say, as if either of my high-stakes careers -- retail bookselling/being spat on by customers or audio book editing under a psychotic boss -- is just waiting for me to slip back in and take up the reins) , so I felt both that she was moving past me in the Game of Life and that she didn't have time for me any more. Which she legitimately didn't, but you have to understand, when I call someone to ask them if they want to do something, I'm already bracing for rejection as the phone rings, and if they say something really mean like "I'm sorry, I'm busy that day, can we do it another time?" then I'm backing off pretending that I didn't really want to see them at all, and I already had an invitation to dinner or the Academy Awards that night, and I was just trying to be nice. 

So I didn't handle this well. Instead of just being a little sad about how life goes on and things change and some of those things suck a little, I decided that we'd never really been friends, she was just hanging out with me until she got a better offer, and her every Facebook update seemed to be a veiled taunt at me (what? you're getting drunk and it's not with me? you're going shopping and it's not with me? you're about to fool around with your husband and ... you get the picture). I would send her breezy, nonchalant emails and be livid if she didn't email me back within ten minutes (because why wouldn't she be waiting by her computer at four a.m. thinking I might email her?).

It was sad. It was ugly. It was beyond moronic. Now that I have a husband and we have a relationship based on trust, respect, communication and the firm understanding that he doesn't touch the rim of my drinking glass while handing it to me, it's like I have to find somewhere else to direct my creepy, stalker-ish, obsessive tendencies. I know I have to work on this in my friendships. It's okay to love your friends, but if my serotonin levels dip I get way too needy and then it all becomes about who does more for who, or who calls who more often, or who said my kid would be cuter once he got some hair one day seven years ago. And it's really no way to conduct a friendship. So the other day I emailed her and said so, I kind of miss you and I was just wondering, hint, hint... and she emailed me back and said I kind of miss you too, you creepy stalker-ish loser, and so everything's great again except for those six months of my life that I'll never get back. Anybody know how to be a role model for your kids when you're not, strictly speaking, anything resembling an adult yet?

I was going to review Hunger by Elise Blackwell, but it's about the siege of Leningrad during World War II and people starving to death and I'm afraid if I put it in a post with this puerile, self-obsessed, whiny drivel, the computer might actually self-destruct. I'll do it tomorrow, when I plan to be much more centered and level-headed. Seriously.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No, not the ones with green six-eyed space monsters in them.

In case you were wondering, I am in fact aware of the irony that the thing I picked to challenge myself and shake up my life is something I can do sitting at my kitchen table in my pajamas. Baby steps, right?
I'm not doing terribly well on my New Year's resolution to read through the three piles of books on my bedside table before adding any new ones. I'm not sure why I have the compulsion to go on borrowing books from the library and buying books and stealing books off my friends' bookshelves (I usually ask first) when at any given time I can easily find thirty to fifty books I haven't read in my immediate vicinity. Do I think I might get snowed in for six months at some point? Am I subconsciously planning to build a big book fort in my bedroom? Is it just good old-fashioned mental illness?

It's especially bad if I'm depressed. Sometimes I look up and realize I'm spending more time scouring newspaper book reviews and doing library searches for books than actually reading books. It's like I feel like I need to build a bulwark of books between myself and the world, so no matter how bad things get, I can escape in several different directions (the past, the future, places where you always have the perfect scathing comeback and nobody ever goes to the bathroom....).

I usually go to bed and start out reading something respectable and enriching, something I can admit to people, nay, brag to people, that I've read. For dessert, I have something with less snob value, often still well written, sometimes a little trashy. Unless I don't feel like putting down the 'good' book, which usually doesn't work out so well, because that means I read it until I should go to sleep, then I read the trashy one until long after I should go to sleep. I find it fairly annoying that if I try to read a book at three-thirty in the afternoon on a week-day, I fall asleep, but if I start reading a book at nine o'clock at night, I can still be wide-awake and reading at three a.m.

My good books are non-fiction or 'literary' fiction. For second-course reading I like mysteries, science fiction and fantasy, and the occasional horror (although I'm laying off on that right at the moment because a couple of days ago I got out of the shower and as I walked out of the bathroom to the bedroom I looked back at the mirror to see if it was fog-free enough for me to turn off the fan, and accidentally saw my ass. That's enough horror for the next couple of months at least). I used to read mysteries less discriminately, but now I don't buy or borrow them unless I'm reasonably sure they'll be well-written, either because I've read the author before or it's been recommended by a friend, or I've read a good review from a reputable source (although this is of course not completely reliable, and I'm aware that I tend to read Publisher's Weekly like some people read the Bible -- as if it's received wisdom from an objective source, rather than just written by some dude with his own agenda).

Fantasy and science fiction is the genre with the widest range -- the dreck is lamentably, appallingly, gall-bladder-wrenchingly, excrementally bad. But the good stuff is the kind of book that reminds me of when you're young and just starting to read novels when you become less aware that you're engaged in the act of reading, and you read a book that performs magic on you, that cracks your mind wide open and makes you realize that there are a million worlds and we don't have to stay stuck in this one, a book that makes you weightless. I felt that young and that full of wonder again when I read The Gift by Patrick O'Leary, and The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder, and All the Bells on Earth by James P. Blaylock, and Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll. I've only ever written three fan letters (emails) to authors, and the first two were to fantasy writers and the third was to a fantasy writer about his first mystery, which pretty much saved my sanity, if not my life, when I was pregnant with Eve and two-year-old Angus broke his femur and was in a body cast for five and a half weeks.

Do I sound defensive? I do feel a bit like it's a dirty little habit. I have been known to compose a pile of mysteries and fantasies at the library and then stick a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being on top as a thin disguise (at least I did before I could do self check-out -- LOVE self checkout). Consider this my coming out of the sf and f closet.

About the three piles of books on the outside edge of my bedside table -- my husband makes fun of me for them all the time. So a few months back, we were trying to flip the mattress because my back was sore. Matt was up on the box spring and then jumped down to the floor and the mattress was on its end sticking up towards the ceiling .... and then he lost hold of it, and it came crashing down towards the glass of water on my bedside table and we both yelled... and the edge of it came gently to rest on my huge pile of books, with the glass of water untouched five inches under it.

Who's laughing now, Chuckle Boy?

Saturday, January 17, 2009

I guess I'll just have to start beating her.

The other day we were having lunch at my friend's house before taking our girls to gymnastics. One of the other Moms had brought cookies and the kids kept asking for them and we kept saying after you finish your lunch. Eve (my five-year-old) said "there's something I don't really understand", and when I asked her what that was, she said "well, when we reach for something and you say stop, we stop. But there's nothing really stopping us".

She's discovered that the Parental Prohibition is completely based on the child's unthinking acceptance of said parent's authority. Dude, we are so screwed.

We were just putting her to bed and she informed us that she just had "the worst day ever" BECAUSE: Angus got to have a friend over and she didn't (because that friend walked over from down the street and Eve has a bit of a cold); she has a cold; she got the hiccups two times; and when she tried to have fun with Jon (the friend) he accidentally dropped the hockey stick on her hand. Matt said well, cheer up, it's virtually impossible to have the worst day ever two days in a row and she gave him this look, like "yeah, you say to cheer up, and yet there's nothing really cheering me up. My entire belief system is built on a facade! Are you even my real father?!". Screwed.


by Michael Redhill

History, memory, loss. This is a beautiful book, a kind and careful story, even if any comfort it holds is of the cold variety. David Hollis is a forensic geologist who claims to have discovered a diary indicating a lost photographic record of 1850s Toronto. As the primary narrative opens, Hollis commits suicide due to his advancing ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease). His wife Marianne then takes up residence in a hotel room which overlooks a construction site wherein David believed the photographs were buried due to a shipwreck; this she terms "an interesting reaction to the death of (her husband)". Her daughter's fiance John, a gentle but rather aimless man, begins visiting her and helping her research David's theory, even though this endangers his relationship with Marianne's daughter Bridget.

The second narrative concerns Jeremy Hallam, a pharmacist who comes to Toronto from London in 1855. He hopes to make a thriving business out of his apothecary, making his father proud and earning enough to bring his father and two daughters to Toronto. He is unprepared, though, for the squalid wildness of young Toronto, the poverty and desperation of his fellow citizens. He is unable to sustain the pharmacy and, through a series of events, ends up living and working with Sam Ennis, a dissolute but generous-hearted portrait photographer, and Claudia Rowe, a widow who Hallam first meets posing nude for Ennis.

The relationship between Marianne and John is complex and refreshingly devoid of sentimentality. Both Marianne and Bridget are very prickly and demanding, which may be exacerbated by the fact that they are mourning, but seems to be part of their respective personalities. The description of John navigating dangerous conversations with Bridget, trying to anticipate and defuse potential verbal landmines (and usually failing), is letter-perfect, and would be funny if it wasn't kind of painful and sad (and sadly familiar). John comes into his own helping Marianne, moving out of feeling that he is "an uncharged particle, a conduit through which a force could travel but not remain". David, a man besieged by the overbearing attentions of loving women, most likely contributed to this by treating John as a son and a friend, and communicating his passion for history. Marianne tells a reporter that "(David) thought modern people were the loneliest people in the history of the world. And the thought that another time was under the one we live in was moving to him. Because it's a kind of company for us, all of us marooned here in the present." The resolution of the various relationships, and David's discovery, is neither neat nor wholly satisfying, which is absolutely appropriate to the story.

Equally resistant to easy closure is the story of Jeremy Hallam, Claudia and Ennis. On the surface, it is a fortuitous coming together of three lost souls, an encouraging story of community in the midst of hardship. Indeed, Claudia Rowe and Sam Ennis are cheerful enough in the face of their cramped living quarters and Sam's failing health. However, Hallam is unable to overcome his feelings of failure, his conviction that he has been reduced morally by the city, that he has failed his father and his wife and children. Although their photography business thrives, he is possessed by the conviction that the "the city was a patchwork of damage enlivened by defiant architecture and freshly painted signs".

I can't think of an easy way to sum up this book. It's about people thrashing around half-blind in the midst of time passing and people lost, people searching history for answers to the same questions we still ask, people finding whatever consolation is available in what we have been given.

Friday, January 16, 2009

What the heck kind of title is "Burt" anyway?

Don't you love how on TV shows, when people get into an elevator, they always end up alone in it with the person they're about to start sleeping with or just broke up with? When I broke up with my boyfriend in university, we lived in the same residence, and I rode in the elevator for four hours at a time -- the son of a bitch never got in once.

The last time I was at the library, I did what I frequently do, which is pick up my reserved book from the holds shelf and then wander back to check them out while scanning the shelves to see if anything else leaps out at me. I grabbed a thin paperback because of the title: "When I Was Five, I Killed Myself". I read the whole thing in bed last night, and by about the second chapter I realized I had read it already, years ago, probably when I was ten or twelve (I got it from the Lively Public Library.) I must have read it under the alternate title ("Burt"); I'm pretty sure I would have remembered this title. I love it when things like this happen.

When I Was Five, I Killed Myself
by Howard Buten

It's always amazing when an adult can capture a child's voice this convincingly -- earnest, literal, trying out expressions slightly beyond his comprehension, unintentionally humourous and often bewildered. There's something almost unbearably sad about the way 9-year-old Burton Rembrandt can express his inner life so clearly and yet has no capacity to control his acting out, which has contributed to his landing in a psychiatric facility. He spends much of his life surrounded by adults who might as well be speaking a different language, so little do they understand his prodigious imagination and crippling fears -- his primary therapist is well-meaning but largely inept, there is occasional mention of violence on the part of his father, and the letter his mother sends him while he is confined communicates nothing but extreme denial and a false veneer of inane cheerfulness.

While he is incarcerated, he relates the story of finding a kindred spirit in his classmate Jessica, and how this leads to the misunderstanding which has resulted in his current plight. While he writes his story on the walls of The Quiet Room, he also meets an unorthodox therapist named Rudyard (Buten seems to have a flair for rather baroque nomenclature), whose greatest talent is thinking like a child and then communicating with them on their level. Naturally, the mainstream administration finds this threatening, enlisting our sympathy for a different kind of outcast.

This book was quite powerful, particularly since it is short enough to be read at one sitting. I really felt like I was inhabiting Burton's world, its vividness and powerlessness, and I'm so glad I got to read it again from a more mature perspective (I'm pretty sure I understood almost none of it the first time around). Buten says in the preface that "people holding my books makes me happy". I'm happy I got to hold this one.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

So I have a strange relationship with numbers...

I was working in the school library this morning. I do the basic library stuff -- check books in and out, catalogue new books, fix hurt books, but mostly I shelve. it's sort of tedious and repetitive and back-breaking, especially the lower shelves, but after a while it becomes sort of a Zen exercise.

It's kind of interesting seeing the books that go out and come back on a regular basis (Harry Potter and Geronimo Stilton in fiction, fast vehicles and puppy and kitten books in non-fiction), or putting back one that I haven't seen get any play before (in which case I kind of root for it -- is that weird?).

Oddly, I find the numbers of the Dewey Decimal System taking on resonances, personalities almost. Not just that I don't like the numbers on the bottom shelf, although that's true. For some reason, some numbers are appealing and some are unsavoury. 398.2 is fairy tales -- three shelves of them, it takes up more room than any other number. 001.9 is a couple of UFO and scary story books that look really cheesy, which makes the number seem sort of appropriate -- it's almost nothing. Not to mention how close it is to the Chicken Soup for the Dippy Happy Marshmallow Mermaid Soul (sorry, is my cynicism showing?).

For some reason I really like 551 and 552 -- natural phenomena and geology, respectively. The numbers seem somehow nicely balanced to me (also, I do like rocks). 567, on the other hand, is a horrid quagmire of dinosaur books, and the shelf seems to have some evil force field around it that actually prevents anyone from being able to put the books in correctly. Don't tell Bonnie, but whenever I get these books, I mash them all together, pick a point on the shelf and just jam them all in -- there's no other way, I swear.
photo credit
736 through 750 is a series of incredibly skinny or imposingly fat books, about drawing and crafts, which also resist proper ordering, but in a more benign fashion (you know, that flaky artsy vibe -- it's chaotic, but not malicious). 811 is a sort of jolly number which seems utterly appropriate for Shel Silverstein. 597, 8 and 9 are animals in the wild, and they seem to serenely float into the proper place. 636, on the other hand, is pets, and they're much less cooperative. 629.133 is a messy, unwieldy number that shelters a phalanx of flimsy sideways-bound books about airplanes and sports cars, and I find the whole business sort of tiresome. I adore all of the 900s, and I have no idea why.

Today I saw some rare 400s -- they were gleaming new, as if they had never been touched. There seem to be an inordinate number of non-fiction books bearing the letters PAR under the number. I haven't conducted extensive enough research to ascertain whether there are just a disproportionate number of authors whose names start with PAR, or if there's one manic dude out there churning out books on hurricanes, dolphins, backhoes and Van Gogh (he'd be a hit at parties, I guess. Or incredibly pompous and boring. One or the other). There's also a lot of SJO, which makes my brain hurt a little -- no offense to the eastern Europeans, but S and J are two letters that just don't belong together in my book.

I go in at about nine-thirty, then I go get Eve when her SK class finishes at 10:45 and she hangs in the library while I finish. Bonnie lets her put away the picture books, because you only need to know the first letter of the author's last name. I can hear her muttering to herself and singing as she shelves them. I wonder if she's developing her own baby neurosis about the alphabet...(B is awesome! I love B! On the other hand, I really wish L would quit looking at me like that....)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A mind divided cannot stand... or think... or produce dinner for four.

I have trouble with transitions. When I say "I", I mean some small centre or formation in my brain, because I, the rational, forebrain, thinking, reasoning part of me, am fine with transitions. I relish them, in fact. I like getting back from a trip and getting reacquainted with my personal space. I like Christmas and summer when things are relaxed and unpredictable and we can do what we want, and I like getting the kids back to school and settling back into the routine afterwards. In theory, anyway. I look forward to it... and then, for no good reason that I can ever ascertain, I implode. It takes a tremendous effort of will to get to the gym, or out of bed. I get a kid to the dentist or the doctor and I feel like I've climbed Everest. At the moment it seems almost inconceivable that February is ever going to get here without this house seeing way too many fish sticks and episodes of Hannah Montana. At least if I'm blogging, I can't be watching TV or eating cookies, right? (not with my full attention, or both hands, anyway). Plus, when I'm depressed, I read more. Huddled joylessly in my chair, like a food addict shovelling down Rocky Road, often increasing my self-loathing, but still....
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
by Christopher Moore
LOVED it. I had to read this for book club, and I had some reservations, which I usually do when approaching comic novels. It's a real talent to write a story that is funny without just being silly -- stupid, even. I once went to a lecture by Drew Hayden Taylor, the Native Canadian playwright, and I can't remember if this was his own statement or if he was quoting someone else, but the quote was: "The truest humour comes from pain". This struck me as so true and right. Lamb would have been a very different book if it had been written simply to make fun of Christianity and do some apostle slapstick. Instead, it gently skewers Christianity, and several other world religions, without being disrespectful to the faithful. The novel fills in the 'missing years' in the history of Jesus, from his time as a child to the time just before the Crucifixion. In this time he meets and falls in love with Maggie (Mary of Magdala), sets off on a long journey to find the three wise men who attended his birth and attempt to learn the true meaning of being the son of God, and returns to Galilee, all the while accompanied by his faithful friend, the loyal, steadfast and horny Levi, who is called Biff.

The relationship between Joshua (Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua) and Biff is heartwarming and hilarious -- Biff takes it as his sacred duty to protect Joshua and do whatever it takes to help him realize his destiny. If this means taking a beating from a Roman soldier, he'll take the beating. If it means sleeping with various women in order that he can describe the act of intercourse to Joshua, (who cannot know a woman in the Biblical sense but is understandably curious about the whole business), so be it. Through Joshua and Biff's travels and debates, Moore questions enough of Christianity to make you think, ("Why would the Lord make sin feel good, then condemn man for it?") but the humour flows mainly from the weaknesses in human nature rather than inherent flaws in the religion. The story asks some interesting questions about what it would be like growing up believing your fate was to save mankind, while feeling completely overmatched, ill-equipped and inadequate to the task. Joshua perseveres, in the face of danger, demons and desire. Biblical characters such as Mary Magdala (Maggie, adored by both Biff and Joshua) and John the Baptist are also given thought-provoking treatment here.

The framing device of the novel is Biff in the twentieth century, having been resurrected by the befuddled, tv-addicted angel Raziel, attempting to compose the new gospel (..."he won't let me order pizza until I finish a section, so here goes...").

The loss and alienation of being suddenly alive years out of his time mirror the confusion and loneliness inherent in being the best friend of the Son of God. The distance also allows Biff a more mature perspective on the friendship: "I don't know if now, having lived and died the life of a man, I can write about little-boy love, but remembering it now, it seems the cleanest pain I've known. Love without desire, or conditions, or limits -- a pure and radiant glow in the heart that could make me giddy and glorious all at once. Where does it go?...Perhaps it is lost to us when we become sexual creatures, and no magic can bring it back."

The humour in this book (and I snorted water through my nose more than once while reading it) does largely come from pain: the pain of a small boy who struggles growing up under the weight of the enormous destiny; the pain of family members and loved ones who necessarily take second place to that destiny; and the pain of the friend who loves him, but can only travel with him so far and no further (although there are a fair number of concubines along the way to ease that pain).

Whether you are religious or not, this is a great story, and a fantastic book.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Does anybody answer when you call into space?

I read. I mother. (Did I put that in the wrong order?). I obsess. Therefore..... I will blog.

So my sister-in-law Sarah (lovely woman. Lovely) has this friend. Who studied creative writing and went to writing retreats and actually submitted stories and had them published and now has a book coming out in February. I found this out while reading Sarah's Facebook profile, and then had to pause briefly for a small interval of self-loathing, insecurity and nausea-inducing envy. And then a little session of "why the hell didn't I just study creative writing? I had to stick to something that I could conceivably make a career out of some day (which I didn't) and convince myself that I would write fiction on my own time (also didn't). I tried to convince myself that since she a) is Jewish, b) grew up in Brooklyn and c) has fantastic hair, clearly she had a natural edge I was never going to overcome anyway. It didn't really work, but at least it got me away from the table and out of my pajamas. I went on with my life, such as it is.

A few days later I looked up a couple of reviews of the book, which are favourable, and managed to sort of feel happy for her, while not quite punching through my cheek with my teeth. Then I decided to look at her blog. It was well-written, and she came across as pleasant and funny. Then she started talking about having two young children while working in a demanding profession as well as writing, and how this sometimes made her feel guilty. But then... wait for it... then, she says that she thinks mothers SHOULD work, and that she finds full-time child-care "mind-numbingly boring".

And instantly I am incandescent with rage. Breathless, dizzy, murderously angry. Never mind that I have little tolerance for people who assume that everybody has to do things exactly the way they do them. Here is this smug, published, superbly coiffed person basically saying I am a brainless, ambitionless, worthless waste of skin and breath if I choose to stay home with my children. What does she therefore think of the people who care for HER children? I was spitting, rolling, levitating with rancour.... 

for about four minutes. 

Then it occurred to me that I was being -- what's the word -- an idiot. Why be pissed at her? She was just doing what everyone does -- trying to justify her choices and not feel like a lousy mother. And why was I feeling like her implied criticism was directly squarely at me (who she's met once and wouldn't recognize if I sat on her fabulously curly head)? Clearly I was feeling like I did, in fact need to be doing something besides looking after my kids, volunteering in the classrooms and working part-time in the school library. So I'm looking back on my life thinking of all the times people told me I was a really good writer, and thinking that writing two or three short stories in a ten-year span, sending a bunch of witty emails and sitting on my ass watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn't, perhaps, the best way to nurture that.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I'm starting a blog, even though I have really low self-esteem, can't withstand any sort of criticism, know nothing about computers, and this makes me really nervous even though nobody's going to be reading it except my sister-in-law.

I'm exhausted. I'm going to read a book.