Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Brown-bagging it

Rowan is home from school today with a hacking, spewing cough that would have rendered him the Typhoid Mary of the Junior Kindergarten set — assuming, of course, that he didn’t pick up the cough from one of his classmates in the first place. He’s asleep on the couch right now. And the silver lining to the cloud of having a sick child (two sick children, actually), to having to rearrange our work schedules and to forfeiting sleep and downtime, is that at least we didn’t have to make him lunch.

I don’t know what it is about the lunch thing, but I’m always relieved when it’s my turn to put the kids to bed rather than clean up the kitchen and make lunches for the morning. Anne Lamott writes about the emotional baggage attached to school lunches, how they can stand in for everything, edible microcosms of the social order:
If code lunches were about that intense desire for one thing in your life to be Okay, or even just to appear to be Okay, when all around you and at home and inside you things were so chaotic and painful, then it mattered that it not look like not look like Jughead had wrapped your sandwich. A code lunch suggested that someone in your family was paying attention, even if in your heart you knew that your parents were screwing up left and right.
Okay, so that’s a little over the top for JK. But she’s on to something. It’s not that I’m worried about what other kids will think of his lunches (Lord knows, if I wanted to worry about things that other kids could potentially tease my queerspawn, half-Jewish, television-less kids about, I don’t have to stoop to lunches.). It’s just that it’s just one more bloody thing to do at the end of every day. You can’t skip it. And you have to get it right, more or less: something nutritious yet appealing, easily opened by fingers that can’t yet reliably hold a pencil or fasten a zipper, and simple to eat. There are twenty-two kids in his class — we can’t assume he’ll get any help with the meal. It’s a tall order for a child who will not eat bread and can’t yet open a Ziploc bag (yes, we use them — but we wash them and then reuse them, so we’re not entirely evil). Oh, and no peanut better and no fish.

I have cut myself a great deal of slack by deciding at the outset of the school year is that it is a perfectly acceptable thing to send Rowan to school with the exact same lunch every single day. I mean, how many winning combinations can a parent reasonably be expected to come up with? We’re still honing the mix, but the current standard lunch plus snack includes a zucchini-carrot muffin (made with whole-wheat flour), a banana, a container of plain yogurt (this one’s hit or miss), some chunks of cheddar cheese, egg salad on a pita, cucumber (generally ignored, but one has to keep up some appearances), and the milk (white) provided by the school. Sometimes almost all of it comes back, sometimes the bag is empty. We don’t know why.

Rowan just walked into my office, pantless, refreshed from his nap and looking healthier than he has all day. Fingers crossed he’ll be over this cough by Thursday. And on Wednesday evening, I will gather together the ingredients and, in some small way, hope that they will add up to everything being Okay.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Who’s a blankie boy? Who? WHO? Nar nar nar nar snuffle.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Book club

Another crazy thing about Rowan starting school: Scholastic Books. I didn’t even know they still existed. I mean, the idea of filling out a form with a pen, writing a cheque, sticking it all in an envelope, waiting your four to six weeks, and then — boom! — your books arrive ... it just all seems a little archaic, like ordering Sea Monkeys from the back page of an Archie comic.

And yet, Scholastic Books are — to the best of my knowledge, at least — alive and kicking, and I am making up for the lost opportunities of my youth. We weren’t a Scholastic Books kind of household growing up, which always rankled a bit. That’s not to say that we didn’t have books, books by the hundreds, just that we weren’t the kind of household that was generally organized enough to remember to fill out the forms and write the cheques and stick things in envelopes. When the Scholastic orders arrived, it didn’t matter that I was never short of reading material. As the teacher distributed those rubber-banded piles of books to the class, she may as well have been handing out engraved invitations to a birthday party to which I wasn’t invited. (Yes, yes, cry me a river, child of the middle class.)

So when Rowan came home with his order forms that first week, I pounced, form-filling and cheque-writing and envelope-sticking my little third-grade heart out. Now, we are (or, at least, I am) eagerly awaiting the arrival of My First Ramadan and Stone Soup. And 30 years from now, Rowan and Isaac will write blogs about how we never got them an Xbox.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


These are just a sampling of the dozens upon dozens of medicine-dispensing syringes that we have acquired — and, for some bizarre reason, saved — over the past four years or so. They are the result of teething, the gazillion ear infections that Rowan developed during his second and third years, the Motrin and Advil and Tempra Rachel and I dispensed to help him (and us) cope with said infections, the boys’ several bouts of bronchitis, Isaac’s first ear infection (circa two weeks ago), and a potentially questionable but ultimately satisfying (especially at 3 a.m.) parenting strategy that Rachel and I have developed that says, “When in doubt, medicate.” It’s how we show love.

Fortunately, both children have embraced our stance on drugs. “He loves love pretty much anything dispensed in a syringe,” I once told our family doctor once as she wrote out yet another prescription for Rowan. “That might not be such a good thing down the line,” she commented.

Normal people would, of course, use a syringe once (or, perhaps, for the duration of the lifespan of a particular bottle of medicine) and throw it away, but we’ve found it comforting to have 30 dozen or so of the things stored in a glass in the cupboard (plus several more hidden in bathroom drawers). And they do come in handy, especially when you are giving a toddler three doses of antibiotic plus attendant pain medication throughout the day. Or when he is inconsolable with a fever and won’t drink and the only way to calm him down and keep him hydrated is to use a syringe to squirt water into his mouth. We have devoted an entire section of the dishwasher cutlery rack to used syringes. It’s a wonder the RCMP hasn’t found a way to shut us down.

It occurs to me that the bucket-o-syringes will be, eventually, just another relic of Rowan and Isaac’s early years, as they graduate from squirty, bubblegum-flavoured penicillin and liquid ibuprofen to spoons and chewable, cherry-flavoured pills. All the more reason to immortalize them on the Internet, where all things ridiculous go to never die.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Plan B

Sunday was one of those days, those middle days of the long weekend when you realize you have no plan and that you desperately need one. When you wake up at 3 p.m. from your 20-minute nap (also desperately needed) because the baby has woken up from his, scoop him out of his crib and carry him to the basement, where your spouse is watching your nearly-four-year-old son bounce off the walls in his underpants, and start racking your brain for something to do in the four hours until bedtime.

What we came up with was the farm. One of the several hobby/working farms in the area that offers up fall pumpkin festivals — hay rides, petting zoos, haunted pumpkin patches, ponies, candy apples, hot dogs, and so forth. We piled into the car (after changing Isaac, sticking sweatpants on Rowan’s resistant little stick legs, throwing snacks and diapers and camera and hats into a bag and a stroller into the trunk) and headed out.

This particular farm is about a 25-minute drive from our house, past the airport, past the pulp and paper mill, into the last of the fall colours and the hopes of seeing wildlife. Isaac kicked his legs happily in his car seat while Rowan kept up a steady chatter about petting bunnies and hay mazes. Then the two of them started their yelling game, where they shrieked back and forth to each other, with increasing hilarity, until Rowan abruptly fell asleep. We kept Isaac content by putting in a CD at low volume and passing the occasional grape back toward him; he also found a stash of stale Goldfish crackers that no one ever bothered to clean out of his car seat, and munched on those for a while. And Rachel and I chatted all the rest of the way to the farm, through the gates, and up to the 15-year-old girls who told us they were closing in 45 minutes — although we were welcome to pay our $21 and go ahead. Perfect. We turned around, Rowan still sleeping, Isaac staring contentedly out his window, and chatted and enjoyed the fall colours all the way home. Rowan opened his eyes as we pulled into the driveway. “Where are we?” he asked. “Where’s the farm?”

It was, as the writer Anne Lamott writes, “like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.” We needed to get out. And we didn’t need to be any place else but where we were.

Drew Barrymore’s mother, are you reading this?

If Rowan ever becomes really famous I’m going to kick myself for throwing away most of his childhood artwork. When I’m purging, though, I’m not usually thinking of the future value on eBay of a papier-mâché cat or a toilet-paper-roll spider with woolly legs. Mostly, I am frantically trying to ensure that we don’t drown in a sea of finger paintings and macaroni collages.

It’s Clair’s fault. Since the age of 13 months, Rowan has had the grand privilege of being taken care of by the wonderful Clair, master of all babysitters. From about day one, he was smitten. And so were we. Not only because she took great care of our son, but because she opened up Rowan’s world, and our own. She took him on all kinds of adventures that we — new parents, new to the city — hadn’t thought up, hadn’t known were possible: to the pet store, to the bowling alley, to the old-age home, on a city bus, to a rehabilitation centre to watch the people swim, to pick raspberries, to the aquarium, the library, to visit her sister-in-law’s parrot, to coffee shops, to collect and polish rocks. She packed up his lunch, bundled him up warm, and they set off together, happy as clams.

And Clair and Rowan crafted. Oh, how they crafted. The very first week, Clair presented us with Rowan’s first piece of art, probably a finger painting or a crayoned drawing. We were thrilled — what parent wouldn’t be? We loved watching her nurture his creativity, loved that our son was getting an arts education instead of being parked in front of the television. We loved how much Clair loved creating stuff with our toddler. “He’s definitely very artistic,” she told us, presenting us with yet another collage.

But the truth of the matter is that Clair is the real artist. If something, anything, can be repurposed as an art supply, Clair will use it in her work. She and Rowan press fall leaves between sheets of wax paper, glue pinecones onto old take-out containers, cover empty bottles with layers of papier-mâché and pipe cleaners, create books, paint rocks, collect feathers and buttons, create elaborate paintings and collages and mobiles and dioramas.

And when she’s not with Rowan, Clair is painting, carving intricate scenes out of tree bark, taking photographs, knitting. Recently, she handed me a bag full of children’s stories she’d written and illustrated a decade or so ago. She’s passionate about fossils and rocks and spends long chunks of her weekend hunting for interesting specimens that she can cut and polish — once, on our way out of town, we drove by her poking through the piles of rock at the side of the side of the highway.

In another life, Clair would have been a geologist, a painter, a writer, a full-time artist. In another life — one without seven siblings and not much money in a northern Ontario town. I don’t know how to reconcile my feelings about this, about my need and desire for quality childcare, my enormous happiness and relief that we have found such a creative and caring person to look after our kids, and the fact that we pay her (not enough, never enough, despite the fact that childcare is our single biggest household expense, bigger than food or the mortgage) to look after our kids so that we can pursue academic and artistic careers. Liberal white guilt has never been a particularly useful emotion, in my books, but I am at a loss when it comes to my feelings about our babysitter’s — what’s that word? — oh, yeah: potential.

In a much less profound way, I am occasionally also at a loss about what to do with all the art Clair creates with Rowan. We simply cannot house it all in our current quarters. I’ve hung some of our most treasured pieces with clothespins on long lines of twine in our basement. I use a lot of them as birthday cards. And then, I’ve taken to photographing the rest of the pieces and, well, throwing them in the garbage or the recycling bin. In editorial terms, it’s called, appropriately, “killing the babies.”

And then, a couple of weeks ago, at the end of Isaac’s first week with Clair, I was going through the a batch of paintings fresh out of the kids’ lunch bag when I came across Isaac's tiny fingerprints, floating across a white page, balloons held together by red ribbons:

It’s beginning again. The deluge is going to double. And I’m thrilled — and still a bit confused.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wake-up call

So, at 4:30 a.m., there was Isaac, awake, crying, my responsibility. I staggered into his room, where some nursing happened, a blanket was retrieved, and he thunked back down to sleep in that solid way that babies do.

And then his snooze button went off. Cue repeat performance from Rachel (minus the nursing) nine minutes later. And nine minutes after that, I went in again, armed with a sippy cup. Nine minutes after that, after some philosophical frippery from Rachel about “acceptance,” I hauled Isaac out of bed and took him downstairs for some breakfast. “Yup,” he said, as I stuck some cold oatmeal in the microwave and then topped it with yogurt and applesauce. I just stared at him, not unkindly.

At 6 a.m., I took a fed, dry-bottomed baby back upstairs, handed him his blanket, and lay him down in his crib, where he promptly went to sleep. Not a nanosecond after my head hit my own pillow did Rhys wake up.

Next morning: same thing, except Rachel’s turn to get up. “But it’s too early,” she moaned from under the covers. I practically bit my lip to refrain from saying anything at all about acceptance, and after a long moment she hauled herself out of bed and went to get the baby.

We can speculate as to why — the cold that turned into an ear infection? Teething? A growth spurt? Possession by Satan? — but we’ll never know exactly what provoked Isaac into this spate of doggedly early mornings. All I can say is that by Saturday morning, after two weeks of this pattern and three days of solo parenting (and telling my wailing 16-month-old, in the wee hours of Friday morning, to do something that rhymes with “duck off”) I decided that enough was enough. He did not need to be awake that early, and he certainly was not benefiting from my deteriorating version of early-morning parenting. The kid woke up at 4:32 and proceeded to cry for precisely a full hour (seriously, he stopped at 5:32) before conking out until 8 a.m. Rhys crawled into bed with me at 6:21, and we cuddled and then got up and had breakfast and played in the basement until I heard the baby, happy as a clam, laughing in his bed. And then we went to the farmers’ market and then — yay! — to the airport to pick up Rachel.

The following morning, same thing.

The morning after that, he slept until a perfectly reasonable if slightly unpleasant 6:04. That was Monday. Yesterday, 6:21.

Today? 5 a.m. I sucked it up and we spent a perfectly lovely couple of hours playing together, him retrieving balls in the basement and playing patty-cake in my lap while I read the Sunday New York Times. “Are you my cuddly boy?” I whispered to him, not expecting an answer, as he put his arms around my neck and buried his face in my shoulder. “Yup,” he whispered back.

Tonight? I’m sleeping in the basement.

Monday, October 6, 2008

You can take the (apparently perimenopausal) girl out of Toronto ...

You take your chances at the Safeway checkout in Thunder Bay. Today, I got Donna Mae and a whole lotta conversation.

“So,” she said, swiping through my six litres of yogurt, “I was reading this book last night? On the menopause? And how you have to eat for it?”

“Uh huh.” I smile and nod.

“It’s like you can’t eat anything!” she continues. “I’m reading this and thinking, ‘What can you eat? Nothing!’ You want your milk in a bag?”

“Oh, no thanks,” I say.

“And calcium. Calcium is very important. I mean, I drink a big glass of milk every day, but some of the food you eat has cheese in it and that, too.”

Nod and smile.

“You’re supposed to take a multivitamin every day,” she tells me. “ But I don’t do that. I just figure you should get your vitamins from what you eat, right? If you eat good?”

“Uh huh.” Nod and smile. Four years after moving to this town, I am no longer surprised by the friendliness of the cashiers, their propensity to comment on the food you buy. “Leeks?” the woman behind the checkout counter will say to me. “What do you use them in, anyway? I’ve never tried them.” Or, “That’s a lot of apples! You making pie?” One time, a cashier told the woman in front of me, who was reading People in line, “Excuse me, Miss, this isn’t a library.” I looked up, horrified and slightly thrilled, at this unprecedented display of unfriendliness, and both women burst into laughter. Turns out they were friends.

“And nuts!” says Donna Mae, shoving a case of soda water back underneath my cart. “You’re supposed to eat a lot of nuts. But” — and here she pauses to take my credit card — “how much is a lot of nuts? A handful? And nuts have a lot of fat in them. So, I don’t know. You know?”

I love a lot of things about living here. And there are a lot of things I don’t miss (amidst the lot of things I really miss) about Toronto. But I’m still not quite resigned to the Thunder Bay supermarket checkout confessional. I just want to buy my yogurt and my milk and my leeks and my apples and get the hell out of there with a little Toronto surliness to let me know I’m still alive. Is that so wrong?