Monday, March 30, 2009

Hit him with your stick!

I have one sister and no brothers. We took figure skating, dance and brownies, and I played the piano. I have vague memories of a skating pageant where I was in one of two lines of little girls who skated up on either side of our skating teacher who was dressed like a princess, and when she lifted her head up to skate her solo I was surprised at how much makeup she was wearing. Her lipstick was thick and sparkly, and in retrospect this seems kind of gross to me, but since I was six I probably thought it was beautiful. I also remember a dance number where all the mothers were going nuts trying to scotch tape everyone's bunny ears upright.
So my family as a whole was completely unversed in the niceties of the out-of-town hockey tournament. That has now all changed. Somewhat.
photo credit
creative commons license

As far as I can tell, the experience consists of a welter of mind-numbing logistics and frenetic activity alternating with periods of absolute boredom OR bacchanalian debauchery. In other words, I'm pretty much a fan.
Most of Friday was ludicrous and irritating. Matt was taking the red-eye home from California and was arriving at about noon, which would have gotten us to Kingston for the two o'clock game, but not for one o'clock which was when the coach wanted the team there. So we sent Angus ahead with the coach. We made my parents come with us, because they never had to before, and it seemed like it was time. Also, they travel with a full range of healthy food, plus a wide range of liquor. So we all arrived in Kingston for the first game, which we lost rather badly, resulting in a meltdown of a small-scale nuclear degree by Angus, so we decided to go check into the hotel before the next game instead of going to eat with the team.
But the hotel was in Belleville. This means we drove forty-five minutes to check into the hotel, giving Angus and Matt about forty-five more minutes before they had to head back to Kingston for the next game. What's that beer commercial that says if you're Canadian chances are you've driven two hours for nineteen minutes of ice time? We are so freakin' Canadian. So my parents and Eve and I got some dinner and went in search of the next arena. We had directions, but there was one right turn that should have been a left turn. We saw some nice farmland. We got to the game a little late, but they tied, and we got to see a great "we didn't lose!" celebration on the part of both teams. Then we went back to the hotel, got the kids bathed and in bed with the tv on and that's when I realized.... I'm in a hotel room in Belleville, with people I like and a bunch of drinks. And our next game isn't until seven o'clock tomorrow night.
Saturday wasn't even a little bit annoying. We shopped and drank and walked to the waterfront in Kingston and Eve lost her second front tooth at the Keg. The game was incredibly exciting, the kids played their butts off, and we were SO CLOSE to winning... and the other team tied it up with about three seconds left. So then we went back to the hotel and contravened the waiver the hotel had made us sign in about seven different ways. You know when you're at a hotel and there are a bunch of kids running around in the hall being loud and it's really annoying? My kid was one of those kids! Well, a little. At one point there were about ten kids in the room and I told them if they didn't start using their inside voices they were going to get in trouble and we'd all have to go to bed. When the next kid came into the room, Angus said "you're too late, we just started using our inside voices". Actually, the kids didn't get into trouble at all (the adults were another story).

Angus is generally pretty quiet and timid. He lives in his head a lot, and he has that same agonizing self-consciousness I had (still do, really). I feel such a sense of joy when he forgets himself a little and acts like... well, like a boy. A loud, oafish, slightly obnoxious, silly boy. I personally don't see the attraction in hanging off someone in the pool while trying to remove his swim trunks, or flinging myself from one hotel bed to the other while trying not to get my head squashed by the six other boys doing the same, but that's just me.
I'm not a great hockey Mom. I don't like getting up at five o'clock in the morning to get to the rink. I don't like the back-breaking hard benches, and my hands are too weak to tie skates tightly enough. I wouldn't have thought I would have a lot in common with a bunch of other hockey parents. Somehow being crowded in a hotel room together passing around beers, reliving the almost-glory and figuring out whose kid is whose is a great leveller. I came home filled with love for all humankind.
But they really should have called that last off-side. Not that I even know what that is.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

In which I forget to review the actual book.

I had one of those meaningless-but-cool things happen, where after one of my last posts a friend mentioned reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and I had just picked it up at the library the day before, so I figured that was a sure sign that I should read it. Right away, I mean, as opposed to shuffling it somewhere into the dangerous, teetering triple pile of books on my bedside table and then renewing it the maximum number of times allowed and finally having to read it against a deadline because I'm trying not to singlehandedly subsidize the Ottawa Public Library this year.

So anyway... The Road. I said my friend mentioned reading it, because you couldn't properly say she recommended it, which kind of makes sense. There are books where it seems ludicrous to say "I loved it" even when you feel glad you read it. It got me thinking about what I'm looking for when I read, which you might think I should have done before considering how much of my life I spend doing it, but hey, ask an addict why he's doing that heroin and see how lucid and well-thought-out an answer you get.

Finding out things you didn't know. That's an easy and obvious one. It seems incredibly decadent to me that if I want to know about how vaccines were developed, or what eighteenth century London was like, or if Robert A. Heinlein really was a big old fascist bastard, all I have to do is type in keyword in subject and away we go. I can lay my hands on any number of informative and surprising facts; unfortunately I don't seem able to remember most of them for more than a day or two, but if you catch me in that forty-eight-hour period I'm a veritable font of genius. Of course, if you'd like to talk about something other than the debatable merits of deliberately infecting oneself with cowpox, you might find me a little annoying that day.

Sharing someone else's mind space. It's such a brave act, publishing something, isn't it? In Zadie Smith's On Beauty, there's a quote about the main character being shaken by another man's appearance: "This second fellow had such lucent white skin and so prominent a plate of bone in his forehead that Howard felt oppressed by the sheer mortality of the man. Never had another living being shown him this much skull". That's often how I feel when reading a really great book where the author's little beating heart seems to glow right through.

Wallowing in envy of great writing. I discovered Michael Ondaatje in university. I've since become slightly more ambivalent about his books as stories, but man, no one can wallop you with the sheer force of his imagery like M.O. I remember a scene about someone having to go into freezing cold water to rescue a cow, and you could have sworn that this man had actually stuck his head under water in February and then come up with words that not only described it but actually made you feel it -- that numbing ache behind the eyeball. I love that feeling, when the same words that I use every day, often to indifferent effect, suddenly combine in a way that takes away my breath or renders me completely weightless for a moment.

Living in another world. Sometimes for escape, sometimes to bear witness, sometimes for the sheer admiration of the fact that someone can create one. I've tried writing fiction -- straight fiction, no genre attached. It's not pretty. Even if I manage to create minimally credible characters, I can't seem to manage to get them from the kitchen to the living room without making them seem like talking radishes. When someone can make a world that I can live in without constantly being aware that I'm 'reading a book', then they deserve my royalties. Or the library's royalties. Or something.

Trying to reach the literary tipping point. I'm convinced that at some point, when I finish the last word of the last sentence of a certain book, I will suddenly be replete with wisdom and talent, at which point I will either know everything or be able to write a great masterpiece, or possibly my ass will just become rock hard. Either way, it's going to be good.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Excuse me while I conspicuously consume this space.

Eve and I went to the mall on Thursday. I had bought jeans for Angus at Old Navy on Wednesday and they were too tight (ended up exchanging them for ones that were too big -- I know this is tangential, but WHY is there only 'slim' and 'husky' with nothing in between? But also, adjustable waistbands rock) and we were looking at a rather drastic pants shortage. We exchanged the jeans and had lunch in the food court, and practiced getting on the escalator, and it was lovely. But I also caved in and bought her a little Disney Princess doll. And this is why I can't 'go shopping'.

I don't really get 'going shopping'. In university, I had friends that would just drive around on the week-ends looking for different places to walk around buying stuff. When I shop, it's a hard-target search, get in, get what you need, get out. Because as long as I don't see stuff, I don't want it. When I'm out where all the stuff is, I end up buying stuff I don't need. I know not everybody is as weak and easily distracted by bright shiny objects; but I personally think I would benefit from fewer shopping hours and maybe having to answer a skill-testing question before being allowed to buy another t-shirt or candle-holder.
photo credit
creative commons license

When I was a kid, there was no Sunday shopping and no evening shopping except on Thursday and Friday. Obviously this was inconvenient for a lot of people, and extended shopping hours are helpful in a lot of ways, especially for groceries. But with so many people talking about 'simplifying' and 'de-cluttering', and the glaring imbalance in lifestyles between our society and others, doesn't it seem a bit -- I don't know -- unnecessary, unhelpful, something like that -- that we place so much emphasis on shopping that we have to be able to do it whenever, wherever?

I end up with a headache every time I try to buy toothpaste. The toothpaste aisle seems to denote the very essence of first world decadence and self-indulgence. Because Jesus, how many different kinds of toothpaste can there be? Whitening, freshening, bubbling, bursting, scouring, cinnamon, freshmint, gel mint, vanilla mint... it's enough to make you yearn for the days when they just chewed on a splintered twig after they ate their bannock and bear grease.
photo credit
creative commons license

I just flipped through my copy of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver looking for this quote, but I can't find it. The book is about a Baptist minister who takes his four daughters and his wife to the Belgian Congo in 1959, and the effects it has on their lives. One of the girls marries a Congolese revolutionary and has four sons. On one occasion she brings them home to Georgia and takes one of them to the supermarket. When he's staggered by the amount and variety of goods on display, she tells him Americans have a lot of things they don't need, and he says "But Mama, how can there be so many kinds of things people don't need?" I think of this every time I try to buy toothpaste.

I know, I know; we live in a capitalist society, supply and demand, blah blah blah. It's up to me to learn to buy only what we need, to teach my children that new is not always better, to cut down on waste. And not only because we don't have space for any more bookshelves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I read in the paper last night that it's normal to have 'feelings of lethargy and irritability' that last up to a week after the time change.

(I know that's not earth-shattering news, but I always like to mark an occasion where somebody puts in writing that something about me is normal).

I have sizeable sleep issues. I know most parents or people with jobs or maybe everyone these days has sleep issues. I'm not sure exactly where mine stack up against the norm, but they suck. And it's hard to ignore them, since they're in my face every twelve to sixteen hours.
photo credit
Creative Commons License

My main problem is something I think of as sleep inertia. That thing about a body at rest tending to stay at rest and ditto for a body in motion? My body prefers to stay awake when it's awake and asleep when it's asleep. Therefore sleep is always long in coming and it's almost invariably torture trying to wake up, even when I've theoretically had enough sleep. Also, my body clock seems have sleep on the schedule between two or three a.m. and nine or ten a.m., which obviously doesn't work with the schedule most of the rest of the world is on.

When I worked, I got to work on time. When I had kids, I got up with them. One might think this would have cleaned my clock, so to speak. It didn't. My stupid body keeps trying to reassert its stupid idea of when I should be sleeping.

Frequently in the morning when I'm trying to wake up I have nightmares that seem to last forever, although for all I know they're five minutes long. They all revolve around me being asleep and unable to wake up, either while somebody I don't know is breaking into the house or while somebody I do know is about to come in and find me sleeping and get really mad about it, or some other occasion where it's all-important that I wake up, and I can't. It's like trying to pull myself out of quicksand, and it's a hideous experience.
photo credit
Creative Commons License

I have no idea if my problem is hereditary, or hormonal, or psychological or what. I've tried a few things, and when the kids are in school full time I might keep trying, although at this point I worry that if somebody did find a way to fix it I would just feel incredibly bitter that I missed so much of my life trying to sleep or trying to wake up.

This looks whiny and pointless reading it over, but I'm posting it anyway because I've got nothing else. I think I had a point at some... point (DAMN the damn time change!). I do really dislike the sleep machismo that seems to pervade our society. I remember watching an Oprah episode (now suppressing the urge to explain that I don't watch Oprah that often and how I just happened to see this one because the tv was on and I fell on the remote which changed the channel to Oprah and I couldn't get up because I'd fractured something so I just had to lie there and watch) a couple of years ago about sleep. The sleep expert began by saying that most people today are sleep-deprived. Oprah and the expert then surveyed the audience, and everyone was talking (bragging) about how little sleep they get, and then one woman said she usually got up at nine o'clock in the morning, refreshed and ready to meet the day; you would have thought she's confessed to eating kittens for breakfast, the way Oprah fell out of her chair and spazzed around in disbelief (NINE o'clock? YOU get to sleep until NINE o'clock?). I just want to go on record saying I think being proud of never getting enough sleep is lame. If you tell me you got four hours of sleep last night I will never try to one-up you. And feel free to tell me your surefire cure for insomnia -- I'll try anything.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Book Review: Couldn't Keep it to Myself, by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institute

I just finished the book Couldn't Keep it to Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters by Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institute, and I can't stop thinking about the book, and prisons, and power. One morning I was lying in bed pushing the snooze button more times than I care to admit, and I kept hearing pieces of this interview that finally made me stop pushing the snooze button. It was a man talking about visiting a women's prison and running a writing group. It became clear that he was a well-known writer, but I didn't find out who he was until the end of the interview, when I already knew I was going to have to read this book. I haven't read anything written by Wally Lamb, but at this point I would willingly be his slave in any capacity required.
Lamb was asked to visit the prison and speak to the women after a rash of suicides and a cutting back of educational programs. A single visit turned into a bi-monthly (bi-weekly? whatever means he went every second week) writing program, which eventually resulted in this book.
It's not the kind of book that makes you want to pull quotes out and marvel over them; these aren't the kinds of stories that hinge on well-turned phrases and poetic imagery. It's the kind of book that sits heavily on your heart, or maybe in your gut, as a kind of sick sadness. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I admit I was probably ready with a bit of knee-jerk judgement -- how were these women going to attempt to justify their crimes, and would it be in any way convincing? That wasn't it at all, though. They were just telling their stories, after a lifetime of not believing that their stories were worth telling, or that anyone would listen or care. The matter-of-fact litanies of abuse and neglect and fear and powerlessness filled me up until I had to stop reading for a bit and digest it all. I think the central image that has stayed with me from this book is power, and the lack of it. After being taught repeatedly by parents or partners that they were worthless objects, useful only as objects for mistreatment by or gratification of others, what chance did these women really have?
It's frustrating in a way, feeling so moved by this book and not really seeing how to act on it. It's not prescriptive in any way, it's not telling you to do something. I guess it shows, in a way, how important witnessing (testimony, like the title says) can be. I do believe in personal responsibility, and I agree that having a crappy childhood doesn't give you a free pass to commit crimes and get away with them. And I understand also that agencies like the Children's Aid are overworked and it's easier to judge their performance than offer solutions. So I don't have any grand "after this book I will now..." pronouncements to offer. But a greater awareness of power distribution in our society is not a bad thing, I think.
The use and abuse of power was brutally emphasized by the way in which the state of Connecticut and the prison administration reacted to the publication of this book. Lamb was careful to inform everyone of the book's acceptance and release, but the authorities waited until just before the book came out, and then used some vaguely-worded seldom-enforced law to charge the inmates for their prison stays. The advance for the book was split among the writers, which amounted to about $5000 a person, and most of them were being asked for hundreds of thousands of dollars ($117 a day). Nice, huh? Clearly, it was not acceptable for these women to discover a voice and achieve some success; they needed to be shown their place. After one of the writers was nominated for and won an award given by PEN, an organization that campaigns for imprisoned writers all over the world, the prison cancelled the writing program and deleted all the women's writing that was contained in prison computers. Can you believe the ham-handed punitive immaturity of it all? 60 Minutes got involved and then somehow the writing program was mysteriously restored and the women only had to pay a nominal amount for their prison stay.
I was talking to a friend about this book and she mentioned the absolute wrongness of women's prisons being staffed by male guards -- talk about the potential and likelihood of abuse of power. Several of the essays also mention the emphasis of correctional institutes being taken off of rehabilitation and put on punishment. I understand the view that prison should not be a 'country club', but how can we think that locking people up and treating them like animals unworthy of respect or kindness is going to result in anything positive? Is it not better to allow them education and some degree of autonomy and self-respect, in the hopes that they will be contributing members of society when they are released? That sounds canned and sappy, and I can't figure out a better way to say it.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Book Review: The Man Who Melted by Jack Dann

I tried sitting around bugging my kids to do something cute and bloggable for a couple of hours today. Didn't work. In fact, they asked to go visit my Dad. I guess I was being kind of annoying. My Mom is away helping my sister out after surgery, and I thought my Dad would probably really appreciate the break from eating whatever he felt like and watching curling twelve hours a day.

Then I thought maybe I should try to post on something of import, something timely and fact-filled, with figures, and footnotes. But then I realized it was dinner time and my kids were gone and my husband was staying to have a drink with my Dad, so I decided to eat my stir-fried broccoli beef and watch the L Word instead.

We're all supposed to be trying to achieve balance, right? I think something deep within me actually hates and resists balance. We did a couple of weeks of the fun party family -- we cooked, we entertained, we were festive and social -- which was great and made me feel like I wanted to die by the end. Following that we had a couple of weeks of the gym-groceries-gymnastics-library-tap-dance routine, where there's lots of time for everything and not so much rushing around, and should the mood strike me to make vegetable stock or apple cookies I can make that happen without undue hardship to the hockey schedule or the sparkliness of my load of whites. And I feel like I've lost the will to live.

Why does it seem like I only get things done in mad, resource-sapping flurries of activity? When I end up with an entire afternoon clear why don't I work on the disaster area in the basement for an hour and clean out a closet, rather than reading through a foot and a half pile of newspapers just in case there was something in there that might make me sound intelligent at the next playgroup? Or I just huddle in my big chair, reading joylessly, reading just to make the pile disappear, as if when this pile is gone I'll be able to stop, and feel some sense of accomplishment.

So I go like some demented double-clutched Thomas the Tank Engine for a bit, and then I get smashed flat for a while.

Crap. Is it possible that that IS the balance? Because that totally blows.

The Man Who Melted
by Jack Dann
I had trouble finding my way into this book, and keeping a hold on it once I was in. The synopsis was interesting, if a bit misleading. The premise is that the Earth has been scoured by a "Great Scream", some sort of telepathic tidal wave of insanity that killed millions and left millions more mindless. Ray Mantle lost his wife and all his memories of their time together in the Great Scream, and is trying to find her. Religions have formed around groups of 'Screamers', who enable people to telepathically link with each other and with the dead. The other half of the story involves Joan, a woman Ray has become involved with while searching for his wife, and Pfeiffer, a man from Ray's past who shows up unannounced and tries to resume their very strange relationship, which seems to consist mostly of Ray and Pfeiffer insulting, condescending to, and one-upping each other.

Dann does a good job of creating a viable future world -- considering the book was written in the early 80s, his worldwide "Net" is quite prescient. The technology is convincing; the highly sophisticated casinos where one can gamble with one's own organs while telepathically linked with one's opponents in order to compete on a mental level as well as in the traditional way is vivid and disturbing. I was less engaged by the ceremony which Ray undergoes in yet another attempt to locate Josiane -- his wife, who, as it happens, is also his sister (yep, we're that far in the future and things are just that hip and crazy. Whatever, I'm not here to judge. But ew). All of the religious characters are sort of half-drawn, to my mind -- they're all solemn and kind and ready to comfort anyone with sex who might need it, but there's no real articulation of their beliefs that I could see.

So there's an aborted attempt at a telepathic linking, interrupted by men with guns, then the eventual reuniting of Joan and Pfeiffer with Mantle, who engage in a strange and sad ménage a trois which continues until they all end up on a re-enactment of the voyage of the Titanic. Again, this episode seems strangely truncated, and the ending sort of rushed.

Maybe it's just me. Apparently this is a science fiction classic, and I really did feel that there was a great story in here. I think it was mentioned that it was a combination of three or four short stories -- maybe that was the problem, that they didn't sit easily together as a whole novel.

Or maybe it's simple. Marry your sister and you're asking for trouble.