Monday, June 29, 2009

If I never play this game again...

... it will be too soon. Fortunately for me, I may never have to. Rowan has decided that I “play too slowly,” and now helpfully takes not only all of his turns, but all of mine as well, all the while narrating the game like a sportscaster on speed: “Okay, my turn: three! One, two, three! I’m on 37! Mom, I’m higher than you! Okay, mom, your turn: six! One, two, three, four, five, six! Mom! Look! You got a ladder! You go up, up, up, up, up — Mom! You’re on 84! Good job! But watch out, because if you get a three next time, you go down that big ladder. Okay, my turn: three again! One, two, three — oh no! I skated on thin ice! I go down a ladder! You’re winning, Mom! Okay, your turn: four! One, two, three, four! You missed the big ladder! Good job!”

And so on, and so on, and so on. This is a parenting strategy I like to refer to as Everybody Gets Most of What They Want, Most of the Time. Rowan gets to play his game, at the warp speed he prefers, and I get to murmur excited noises while reading the New York Times Sunday Styles section (which, in Thunder Bay, is generally delivered on Mondays, sometimes Tuesdays). In which, this week, I learned that, “Relationships between gay and straight men aren’t always easy, but stereotypes are falling.”

Oooh. Apparently, in the big city of New York, the gays and hets have tentatively figured out how to maybe be friends. At least, the guys — no mention of women. Whatever, I’m thinking: just move to a small town and you’ll have no choice.

Case in point: it was just Pride weekend. At least, it is places where they have Pride. Also known as places that are Not Here. All I wanted on Saturday was to take my children to the post–Dyke March beer garden. I wasn’t even envisioning idyllic: I would have settled for whining, demanding, overheated children in a beer garden in the middle of a city without garbage collection. Seriously, I would have. And then I read a whole bunch of blogs about moms who took their whining, demanding, overheated children to Pride, and I still wanted to be there.

My friend Tara, one half of the only other two-mom household I’m aware of in this fine city, suggested we try to create some kind of kid-focused Pride event. We discussed the idea, but the discussion kinda stalled around the question, “And which queer parents would we invite?” We scratched our heads for a while. “Well, there’s you...” she said, and trailed off. I thought of the woman at Rowan’s school with the rainbow sticker on her car: Rachel, excited, struck up a conversation with her one day, but we never got her name. There’s the woman who came up to me in the Scandinavian Home Restaurant in the winter because she recognized me from this blog — Pam! If you’re reading this: send up a flare! Jeez, if you made out with your same-sex roommate in college one drunken night and now live in Thunder Bay, send up a flare! — and then there’s, um … well. All the parents we usually hang out with. Our friends. Fine, fine, fabulous people, all of them. And all straight, as far as I can tell.

That's the thing about small places. You get to be friends with fabulous people, even when they are Heterosexual and you are Homosexual, because That’s How Things Work. In Toronto, I could surround myself with people just like me: I can, off the top of my head, for example, think of at least five other same-sex, interfaith couples with two kids, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of queer motherhood. Not to mention the dozens upon dozens of queer non-parents who are mainstays in the lives of so many of the gaybies (and their parents) in their midst.

And while I longed to be with all of them this weekend, I consoled myself with the fact that the community we have built and are building here is pretty damn lovable. And if we had stayed in Toronto, never moved to Somewhere Without Pride, I wouldn’t have known that. It’s not perfect, but neither is Toronto (even when the city workers are picking up garbage): I still long for more queer culture — not to mention more cafés, more art galleries, more patios, more walkable neighbourhoods — but it’s pretty damn good, from our mini Pride Sunday brunch with godmothers Judy and Jill to the community pizza potluck in the park that evening, where children danced in circles around giant cottonwood trees. Both versions my life — the urban and the small-town — have their ups and downs, but in the end, I suppose, Everybody Gets Most of What They Want, Most of the Time.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Marlo and me

One of my less marketable skills is the uncanny ability to create new lyrics to pre-existing songs. It came in quite handy at summer camp, where I never tired of making up team songs to the Fame theme song or “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing,” or, on one memorable occasion, George Michael’s “Faith.”

Today, I find I find that the same skill serves me quite well as a parent. Rachel just stares at me and shakes her head as I come up with nifty little rhyming ditties about brushing teeth and putting toys away, all set to Sound of Music and Beatles melodies. But the kids like it, and I swear it keeps my mind younger. Never mind that I can’t remember anything that happened last week.

So when I read Lesbian Dad’s recent “Baba’s Day” post, wherein they take their kids to a Pride-sponsored screening of Free to Be You and Me — in San Francisco’s Castro, no less — I was, in addition to being insanely jealous, also immediately taken back in time to my seventh-grade production of FTB. It was 1983. I was in a class of ten girls, with my first teacher who went by “Ms.” and didn’t shave her armpits. You could say it was my feminist awakening. While I could relate to the relevance of “William’s Doll,” I also felt that it needed a girl-specific corollary. A couple of classmates and I got together, and “Gillian’s Ball” was born.

Without further ado:

Gillian’s ball

When my friend Gillian was five years old
She wanted a ball to bounce and throw.
“A ball,” said Gillian, “is something that
“I could use to learn to bat.
“A ball to catch and throw all day —
“Baseball and football I could play!
“And when it’s time to go to bed,
I’d put my ball away,” my friend Jill said.

[CHORUS] A ball! A ball! Gillian wants a ball!
“Don’t be a tomboy,” her best friend said.

Why should a girl want to play with a ball?
“That stuff’s for boys,” said her cousin Meg.
“Don’t be a jerk,” said her older brother.
“I know what to do,” to her father said her mother.

So her mother bought her a Barbie doll,
A baking set, and that’s not all:
Some knitting needles, a crayon set,
A baby doll that really wet.

And Jill loved all of her new games,
Enjoyed them all but all the same,
When Jilly’s mother praised her skill,
“Can I please have a ball now?” said my friend Jill.

A ball! A ball! Gillian wants a ball!
A ball! A ball! Gillian wants a ball!

Then Gillian’s grandma arrived one day
And wanted to know what she liked to play.
And Jill said, “Barbie’s my favorite game.
“I like to play, but all the same,
“I’d give up all of my new toys
“to go play baseball with the boys.”

“How very wise,” her grandma said.
Said Jill: “but everyone says this instead:

A ball! A ball! Gillian wants a ball!
A ball! A ball! Gillian wants a ball!

So Gillian’s grandma, as I’ve been told
bought Gillian a ball to bounce and throw.
When Gillian’s mother began to frown
Grandma smiled and calmed her down, explaining:

“Gillian wants a ball
“So when she’s on a Little League team,
“She’ll know how to bat and to run and to throw,
“And to field left and right and to pitch high and low.
“And maybe one day, Gillian will score the winning run!”

Gillian has a ball! Gillian has a ball!
'Cause she’s gonna play baseball and have a lot... of... fun!

Okay, I admit that I got just a wee bit choked up writing that down.

Yes, of course I remember all the lyrics, another slightly more marketable skill being a semi-photographic memory, especially for Trivia Relating to My Own Life, particularly the preteen years. Actually, I can quote the entire FTB soundtrack from memory (not to mention The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof) and, yes, I do, whenever we put the CD on, inspiring yet more eye-rolling from Rachel. I’m always up for a resounding chorus of “Housework.” My version, however, is inspired not so much by Carol Channing’s rendition as by the Russian-accented version of my seventh grade classmate, Lina, who had recently immigrated from the USSR: “You KNOW, there are TYMZZZES when you HAPPEN to be, just SEE-TING there, KWI-etly, watching TEE-VEE...”

It only just occurred to me now that maybe William grew up to have three kids with his husband, Steve, and that Gillian was a budding baby-dyke who’d grow up to be a human-rights lawyer and pitch for her Rainbow-league softball team. You never know — but you know they were free to do whatever made them happy. Whether you’re in San Francisco or northern Ontario or anywhere in between or beyond, Happy Pride!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

And your mothers wear army boots

When I went to pick up Rowan at school today, the JKs were playing outside in the big kids’ playground. Rowan looked up from the slide, gave me a huge grin, and yelled, “Susan! What are you doing here!”

His teacher looked at me in mock horror. Instead of commenting on his amazing people skills, though, she said, “‘Susan?’”

“That’s what he calls me,” I said.

“Not ‘Mom’?”

“No,” I said. “Not ‘Mom.’”

Why?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “maybe if you had two of them, you would find more sensible things to call them, too.”

“Good point,” she said.

Because I am not Rowan, I did not answer, “I know it’s a good point.” But I thought it.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Dear Isaac,

You turned two this month, and I have devoted no small amount of time into figuring out how to bottle you, to preserve the essence of you at what I can only imagine is peak cute. I keep thinking the formula is nearly perfect, and then, every time I test it out, the Oompa Loompa turns into a huge blueberry and rolls away.

But first it wakes me up at 5:17 in the morning and demands a muffin and a glass of milk.

So I guess that you are going to keep on growing in the way that you have for the past two years, and I will just have to trust in the photographs and videos and, yes, this blog, to remember what you were like RIGHT NOW, barely 20 pounds soaking wet, in your goofy little frog hat that shades you so nicely from the sun.

I will have to remember your uncanny ability to wedge yourself so precisely into the space next to my body, and your almost palpable satisfaction at doing so with both white fuzzy security blankets in your arms and your thumb in your mouth. We spend lots of time like that on the couch, where we read, over and over again, books about trucks and about dogs, and you still get mad when the back cover of the board book will not open, and you try to pry apart the layers of cardboard in an effort to squeeze out just one more little bit of story. But you’re learning to flip the book back to the beginning and begin again. And each time we see that dump truck or the “six quiet dogs,” it’s just as thrilling as the last time.

For your birthday, we are buying you some leverage with your older brother in the form of two particularly coveted Sodor Railway trains. That brother of yours, one of his favorite questions is, “How come Isaac always wants to do what I want to do?” He sounds a bit put out by the whole younger sibling thing, and to some extent, he is. After all, one of your favorite phrases in relation to him is, “Coming too.” But I’ll tell you both a secret: pretty much just as much of the time, he wants to do what you’re doing, too. The two of you will disappear upstairs or into the basement for half an hour or more at a time, and your other mother and I are learning to back off just a bit when the two of you play. Because, when we do, when there’s no authority figure to provoke, your older brother becomes protective, solicitous of your toddler needs, nurturing. Many times, we’ll hear a bump, and then your cry, and then his voice, asking if you’re okay, if you want a hug or your blanket or some water. And, more often than not, you’re fine, trusting in him to make things better. He likes to lie down with you while you nap, swearing up and down that of course he will not talk and he will go to sleep. And then the two of you giggle and wrestle and natter and mess around until we finally have to escort him, protesting, from the room.

You doubled your lifespan over the past 365 days, and will double it again and again and again and still be younger than me. During that time, you learned how to walk and to talk, to feed yourself, what the telephone is for and how to climb into your own car seat. You paint, you sing, you dance, you sweep the floor. At playgroup the other day, you planted your first red runner bean. You like to mix up batches of pretend oatmeal in the sandbox and serve them to anyone who’s hungry. You are enamored of tea parties, a particular stuffed doggy, and the cats, even though the big one occasionally lets you know when to cut it out with the poking her with pens and paper clips. You have an uncanny ear for motorcycles and ambulances, and like to imitate a truck backing up, beep-beep-beeping as you shuffle carefully backwards.

You are a second child, who knows of things like ice cream and Pokémon well before your older brother ever did. When you wake up from your nap hysterical and inconsolable, your other mother and I feel bad for you but we do not worry, we do not feel desperate and wonder what we did wrong. You have grown up, thus far, not under the weight of our anxiety but rather our bemusement. Has that made a difference to your personality? Is that why you have the sense of humour you do, screwing up your face into coy little grimaces, pursing those rosebud lips into your series of funny faces? Rowan likes to get you to perform your tricks like a trained seal at a party: “Isaac, do baby laughing!” he’ll say, and you will oblige by breaking out in a series of jolly guffaws. “Isaac, do baby crying!” he’ll say, and you’ll wah-wah-wah for the audience.

And even though you’re two now, we still do think of you as a baby, our tiny, smiley little guy. You made a spectacular entry into the world, and I often find myself in the bathroom, marveling at the spot of linoleum right near the cupboard where the doula laid you carefully onto a towel before rushing off to grab some piece of equipment or other. Your other mother was on the phone, paging the midwife, who was parking her car in our driveway. Your big brother, seven months older than you are now, was asleep in his bed, barely 20 feet away. Time slowed down then for me, so that the entire world consisted of our two bodies, still joined, and the maybe six square feet of bathroom floor we occupied, me on my knees and breathless and thrilled at the turn of events that let me have you at home instead of the euphemistically named Regional Health Sciences Centre. I’d spent the day in labour, breathing through contractions and thinking about what it meant to open, to make that kind of room within myself and without, imagining you as my partner in this process and working with me to get you here, each of us trusting in the other’s instincts and decisions.

Even your 5 a.m. wakeup calls will eventually cease. On my mornings to get up with you, you eat your snack and then we cuddle up in your big brother’s abandoned bed for 45 minutes or so. You start off a foot or so away from me and slowly inch your way closer until we are spooning, me breathing in the scent of your strawberry-blond hair, nuzzling your skin, holding your tiny body close to mine for as long as I can until you turn over and sit up and say, “Go downstairs.” And I sigh and heave my weary body up and say, “Okay.” And you reach out your arms and say, “Coming too.” And we go downstairs together and squeeze out just a little bit more of the story.

Happy birthday, baby.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Magic wand, repaired

We went to a birthday party last night, an offshoot of the weekly kids’ soccer game that has become our latest mainstay. Each Tuesday evening, several families gather in the lower field of a nearby schoolyard, children and potluck snacks and water bottles and bicycles and picnic blankets in tow. J’s four children drag their nets across the street and down the field. M brings a bag full of purple and yellow cloth strips that the kids tie around their heads or their waists to indicate their teams. L brings an entire watermelon, sliced. T blows his whistle and get the kids to line up by height, somersault across the field, give him 10 push-ups to warm up. S, who lives across the street, is the default bathroom stop for kids who just can’t hold it. At least one toddler eventually ends up naked. The little girls get hot and strip off their T-shirts; boys show up in pretty dresses if that’s what they feel like today.

There is a game of sorts, and then a break, and then a kids-against-grown-ups game, and then eventually we all scrape our children together, pluck them from the trees and the hills and the sidewalks, and make our way home, past bedtime and worth every minute of it.

Last night, J’s younger son turned eight, and the soccer game expanded to include tables and a potluck dinner, candles and cake, three-legged races and stomp-the-balloon and garbage-bag crawls and a cup-decorating station and the birthday boy high on contraband Fun-Dip. Grown-ups picked up broken balloon pieces and swung random children through the air. One child wondered aloud if there was an extra piece of birthday cake for him, and his dad indicated an abandoned half-slice on a plate on the ground: “Go ahead and have that one,” he said. “It doesn’t look like anyone is eating it.” And I thought: My kind of people.

Just as all the tables were set up, all the food spread out, the canopy stretched over top, we saw two police officers slow down and then stop their car across the street, open the doors and climb out and make their way, slowly, towards us. And I thought, Oh come on. Do we need a permit? Are they going to shut us down? Can’t we just gather in the park for a picnic without the cops arriving?

And one of the officers said, “We’re looking for a little girl who’s gone missing.” And I felt a rush of shame. Were all the kids here — all the girls — present and accounted for? No one extra? “Her name’s Angelica,” said the officer. “Apparently she comes here to play sometimes.” And we all scanned the field, picking out our own children and everyone else’s, hoping to spot one more girlish body in the mix. She wasn’t there.

The cops left. We returned to our festivities, the mood picking up fairly quickly in spite of it all. Games were played, cake eaten, new balloons tied around ankles and sweaters donned in the fading light. J brought a bag of tiny gifts for the kids, including a roster of fairy wands with pink ribbons tied around them. I found Rowan, perched in the lower branches of a crabapple tree, surrounded by children, and handed him one. “What is it?” he asked. “Your magic wand,” I told him, and he was into it immediately, shouting “Alakazam! I’m turning you into a turtle!” all the way home.

Of course, magic wands in the hands of four-year-olds are delicate proposition, and so I’ve Scotch-taped this one back together. Given its provenance, I’m fairly certain there’s still magic in it. Fingers crossed for enough magic in the world to make sure Angelica is safe.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Forty years in the desert was enough

If Rachel and I ever split up, you just know that the next person she gets involved with will like to camp. Why, why, why, she’ll ask her new love, as they lie next to each other on their Thermarests, gazing out of the mesh door of their tent, which will be pitched in the belly of some provincial park or other, Why, why, why did I spend all those years with someone who never appreciated all this?

Here’s a (not-so) secret: I don’t really like camping. I’ll put up with it for a few days, here and there, for the greater good, but I never really got the point of it. I mean, I like nature and all, but I don’t really feel the need to sleep in the middle of it. Or cook, for that matter: I have a perfectly functioning stove right in my house, along with a bed. And oh, this crazy little thing called a toilet.

A lot of my camping aversion has to do with sleep. As in, I can’t — at least, not lying in a tapered, zippered, sleeping bag, with only an inch of foam and between me and the hard, hard ground, my folded fleece acting as a pillow, the whine of a thousand bloodthirsty mosquitoes droning in my ears. Sleep, as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, is important to me, perhaps because it does not come easily to me at the best of times. And I am loath to squander it for the purported benefits of “getting away from it all” in the wilderness. One of the last times Rachel and I camped, I was five months’ pregnant with Rowan, which gave me the leverage to insist that we purchase an air mattress (along with a nifty little pump that you can plug into your car’s cigarette lighter). And now, when we camp, we camp on a mattress, outfitted with sheets, duvet, and pillows. Two of them, for me. Because I need two pillows to sleep. (Actually, in a perfect world, I also like a third pillow, just hold on to, but I’m willing to sacrifice this perk for the sake of “outdoorsiness” and keeping things simple.)

I also like earplugs, and an eye mask, to filter out the sunrise. And then I like to drink tea, with milk in it, as soon as possible after waking up. I’m becoming one of those people who contemplates traveling with my own pillows. In other words, I’m getting older, and it’s clear I’m not mellowing with age in the sleep department.

Here’s another thing: I feel ugly when I camp. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it’s the truth. I have hair that really does require a certain amount of product to look halfway decent, hair that, when faced with humidity and lake water and left to dry of its own accord, frizzes out into an unattractive pyramid. And I don’t tan, either. Camping, sans product and styling aids, I begin to resemble a yeti. There’s Rachel, of the fine, straight, blonde hair, getting progressively cuter and browner and silkier with each passing hour, while I grow into a Brillo-headed, mosquito-bitten, grouchy little mess. Oh, and did I mention I am prone to heat rashes? And that Rachel could sleep on a pile of rocks?

Aesthetic issues aside, sometimes I find camping just a wee bit boring. I’m a little bit of a productivity junkie; I like to keep busy. And faced with a day of hanging around the site, I can get a bit antsy. My best trips are the ones that keep me busy and that thoroughly tire me out by the end of the day: canoeing or cycling to the next destination. Or, trips where camping is a means to an end: the tent the equivalent of a hotel room while we hang out at a music festival or stop for the night on a road trip.

And now that we have children to add to the mix, camping takes on a whole new tenor. We’re planning our first session of roughing it in the bush (as opposed to in a field with other festival-goers) with the kids this summer — Rachel wanted to head to Pukasaw, a national park four hours north of here; I talked her down to the Sleeping Giant, a breezy hour’s drive, with a little town nearby for diversions. I figure, in the event that I don’t sleep well and then am woken at five by chipmunks and a toddler, I may not have the energy to keep a watchful eye as the children stray towards open water, open fires, bears, the woods. I may need to take a little walk down the street to a coffee shop, or, at worst, make it home in short notice. At least for the first time we head out.

When Rachel and I first met, the throes of new love did a lot to temper my misgivings about camping, and Rachel’s misgivings about my misgivings about camping. We thought of each other’s quirks as simple — but adorable! — errors in judgment, each imagining that the other would come around if we could only convince her of the rightness, the moral superiority, of our positions. She would make me love camping; I would make her see the charm of a B&B.

We joked that it was a religious difference: Jews don’t camp (notwithstanding my weeklong canoe trip as a CIT at Camp Hatikvah in 1986); Gentiles do. It’s a biblical relic, really: Wasn’t wandering in the desert for 40 years enough for my people?

In the years since we met, we’ve learned the futility of trying to convince each other of our rightness and have settled for putting up with each other’s foibles as gracefully as possible. We’ve done a half-dozen or so camping trips, some involving cars, some canoes, and at least one that involved bicycles and a taped ankle. We’ve slept in one-person tents and, most recently, a behemoth that divides into two rooms with us on one side and a baby in a Pack-and-Play on the other. We’ve camped at music festivals and provincial parks, on the gorgeous beaches of Pancake Bay on the shore of Lake Superior.

And we have also bailed from the tent on a number of occasions for the relative comforts of bed and breakfasts, cheesy motel rooms, and the Best Western hotel chain. On at least one occasion, she did the bailing. Because sometimes, in the pouring rain, or when the horses in the pasture next door give you strange looks, or when you have tonsillitis, nothing quite beckons like a room. With walls. That you can stand up in. And a hot shower. And beer, brought up by room service, while you watch cheesy cable TV. And tea, with milk, first thing, the next morning.

Now, that’s roughing it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Guess I left them in the basement too long

I’ve been so thrilled lately about the kids’ ability to go down to the basement and play, unsupervised, for at least short periods. This morning, though, I think we may have crossed the line.

Could’ve been worse. Could’ve been like the kid down the street, who used indelible Sharpies to draw coloured lines down each of the piano keys.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Must be doing something right

Every so often, one is the witness/recipient of such a run of Behaviour that one is tempted to pull out one’s fingernails, just for the welcome distraction the pain might bring

You know, those days when every utterance out of a child’s mouth is a version of, “I didn’t want you to do that, and you did it wrong, too.” When every action is the equivalent of them stealing your last bite of pie, only to spit it out because it’s yucky. When they insist that the best way to show their love for you is to crash into you full speed while braying like a donkey and laughing hysterically at your bruises. When it’s all you can do to excuse yourself quietly from the room, hide behind a locked door, rub your temples and breathe and count the minutes until bedtime and the reprieve from the banshees who have taken over the household.

And then — and then — one happens upon a tableau such as this:

And, just in case you thought it was a fluke, this:

Yes, that is the big one reading stories to the little one. By reading, I mean a mixture of memorization (he’s sort of the human equivalent of a Kindle, what with all those books he's got stored in his head) and actual, sounding-out-the-letters-to-make-a-word reading. And the little one, formerly hostile, is now rapt, in awe of books, taking my hand and pulling me to the shelf to find Sandra Boynton's Doggie Book or one of DK Media’s thousand-plus books about trucks. His new favourite sentence (after, “Mommy go get it”): “I want to read.”

And now, in addition to saying yes, we can also say, “Go ask your brother.”

Makes up for a lot, that.