Wednesday, July 29, 2009

“Maria, what is it you can’t face?”

When Isaac was a baby — a real, bona fide baby and not the skinny toddler he is now — we used to try to comfort him on long car rides by singing what became known as the “Isaac Song.” It didn’t always work, but it had the advantage of being easy to remember, even for Rowan, as it went something like this (in the key of C major):

Isaac Isaac Isaac

Isaac Isaac Isaac

Isaac Isaac Isaac

Isaac Isaac Isaac

(Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse!)

Anyway, as he exits babyhood, Isaac seems to have outgrown Isaac Song, and so we are currently trolling around for replacements.

Which got me to thinking about the summer of 1993, when I backpacked around Europe with my friend Julie, and we met this girl named Joanna Rainbow. She had a last name, too, and I just found it in the back of my diary from that trip so now I can Facebook her — but I will refrain from posting it here.

One of the best things about Joanna was that she was about as obsessed with The Sound of Music as Julie and I were. (Although I do remember Julie gazing wistfully at yet another panoramic view of the Alps and asking, “Would you really want to climb every mountain?”) And, since we met Joanna in Salzburg, Austria — otherwise known as Sound of Music mecca — she was the perfect companion for the SOM bus tour. The gazebo! The gazebo!

Another thing about Joanna was the story of how her parents met. Apparently, her mother and father were each married to other people, and the two couples were best friends. Such best friends, in fact, that the four of them decided to take a trip to Hawaii together. On the plane, each of the women sat with the man she was not married to. And at the end of the flight, without anybody saying a word to anybody, each of the newly configured couples stayed in their new configurations, all the way to their hotel rooms, throughout the stay in Hawaii, and beyond to divorce and remarriage. I don’t remember whether they all had children before or after that fateful trip, or whether Joanna’s parents actually gave her the name Rainbow or she just added that on later in life, but – oh, those crazy Californicators.

And what does all this have to do with the Isaac song? Well, the thing is, I probably wouldn’t remember anything about Joanna today if not for her family car song, which she sang for me and Julie, which we didn’t stop singing for the entire continental tour, which I still find myself randomly humming today. I remember her telling us about how she and her brother would fight “like chickens” in the backseat of the car, but that the bickering could always be brought to a halt by the following ditty:

Mother-fucking, titty-sucking, two-bomb bitch
C C E G CC E G A- A- C

Father-fucking, titty-sucking, two-bomb bitch
C C E G CC E G A- A- C

La la la la la la la

Fill your ass with spaghetti.

The real genius in the song is that, with every repetition, you had to fill your ass with something else, like paper clips or turtledoves or bright copper kettles and whiskers on kittens. “It was just such a caring, sharing, kind of song,” I remember Joanna saying. She described how her mother and father would beam at their respective lines, about hours of bliss passing by as they sang and sang, about the creativity, the sharing.

And now, as I look for a new car song, I'm thinking, “Heeeyyyyyyy...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pineapple weed

“Look,” Rowan says, dropping to his knees on the sidewalk: “pineapple weed.”

He plucks a sprig of the ubiquitous small plant that grows through cracks in the summer pavements: green stalk and leaves, topped with a golden helmet of a blossom. It’s never occurred to me to look at it.

“If you rub the yellow part with your finger and smell it, it smells like pineapple,” he says, and does, holding his thumbnail to my nose. And he’s right: there it is, the smell of pineapple, lingering on his fingers. (Later, on a walk around the block to clear my head, I perform the same magic trick for Rachel. She is suitably impressed.)

I hold onto this moment — this moment of my son teaching me something interesting, something I don’t know already, something quirky and cool; this example of his ability to pay attention — and return to it a few days later as I sulk in the corner of the kids’ pool at the Sports Complex, fed up with Rowan’s refusal to go to his swimming lesson, at his ability to confound me in public, at the fact that he has deprived me of a much-needed half-hour swim.

It’s only later that I realize that he doesn’t actually get the concepts of “late” and “on time,” that much of him believes that the lesson will be there when he is done in the kiddie pool. “But I just got in,” he keeps saying. “I’m not ready to get out yet.”

He knows so much. Like the pig Olivia, he is good at lots of things, including — especially — wearing people out. Without even really trying, he has started to read. Recently, he showed a friend of ours how to work a program on her Mac. But there’s still so much to learn, like how to dunk your head underwater without the water going up your nose, or that Isaac will hand him almost anything if he only asks nicely.

“You’re having a hard time listening when I ask you to do something these days,” I said to him a few bedtimes ago.

“Yes,” he said, after a pensive silence. “Yes, I am having a hard time with that.” He placed his palm on my cheek.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, after another moment. “Because my body doesn’t know so much things yet. My brain doesn’t know so much things yet.”

Mine neither, I think. But you’re teaching me.

Monday, July 20, 2009

My mothers went to the Winnipeg folk Festival and all I got was this hippie relic of a T-shirt

Ye gods, people, you have no idea how much shorter an eight-hour drive is with no children in the back seat. The whole way to the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Rachel and I kept marveling at how easy this was: no backseat DJing from the three-year-old dictator, no “Are we there yet?”s, no placating a restless Isaac with chunks of Arrowroot cookie and half-grapes, passed into the backseat at regular intervals. No doling out points for every “motorcycle-go!” passed on the highway. No ending the last leg of every driving interval with a screaming baby whose limits had been pushed past breaking point. No skulking around the sleeping children in a hotel room at 7:30 p.m., only to be wakened by the very same children at 4:34 a.m. So not like last year.

Just me and my girl, on the road with grown-up music and coffee and the cell phone I finally acquiesced to. And oh my God, it was sweet.

Those of you with small children who have not yet gone away for a few days with your partner: do it. If you can swing it at all, do it. Leave them with a trusted somebody and hightail it out of town. It barely matters where. I mean, the Folk Festival was fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but the real highlight of the weekend was not being responsible for anyone else’s needs. From Friday morning — a getaway marred only by Rowan’s sudden tears and pleas for us to stay (he was fine, fine, five minutes later, as we confirmed by said cell phone) — until Monday evening, I did not have to worry about anyone else eating, sleeping, sharing, peeing, hurting, running off, waking up, being bored, throwing sand, or otherwise Behaving or Needing or just plain Existing under my jurisdiction. We travelled with three other sets of parents of relatively small children, none of whom had ever left their kids behind either, and we all walked around with slightly goofy, dazed expressions on our faces. We half-declared a moratorium on conversations that began with, “If the kids were here...,” but eventually gave up. It was just too much fun to gloat.

Even the camping — such as it was, what with nice flat fields of open grass and cooking facilities and bathrooms nearby — was magical. I slept, uninterrupted, under a duvet on our air mattress, until whatever time I chose to wake up in the morning. Our second morning there, Rachel brought a steaming mug of tea to me as a 10:30 wake-up call. And I remembered what it was like to be pampered, how easy it was to be romantic, when not pulled in two directions at once, not mentally mapping out the morning, the hour, how to entice children from Point A to Point B.

And the people! The beautiful people everywhere, eating the beautiful food that we simply bought when we were hungry, washed down by the microbrews in the beer tent when we had a hankering. The baked goods! (Rachel would like me to mention for the record that we ate fried dough in four different forms.) The swimming, the conversations, reading large chunks of my novel, the setting up of camp chairs and hanging out for hours on end in ways that we haven’t hung out in far, far too long.

And, uh, the music. “What did you see?” my sister-in-law asked when we got back. “I don’t actually know,” I admitted. Because, sacrilegious as it sounds to the hard-core festivalgoers, I didn’t really care all that much, at least after k.d. lang cancelled and we missed Elvis Costello and Martha Wainwright on the Wednesday night. Neko Case was pretty rockin’, as was a UK band called Bellowhead. I liked Iron and Wine, and I kind of thought Steven Page was a bit pathetic, what with singing all the old Barenaked Ladies songs he wrote, thank you very much.

But really? As long as it wasn’t Raffi, I wasn’t complaining.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Hey, how would you like an organic blueberry-banana smoothie, garnished with a fresh-picked strawberry, still warm from the fields? Because I have two, right here, that my children Are Not Drinking.

The little one, just woken from a nap and therefore in the state of mind I refer to as Everything You Do Is Wrong, screeched, “No strawberry! No strawberry! No moothie! Don’t want! Take it away! Away!”

“Why did you put the strawberry there?” was what the big one wanted to know. “For decoration,” I explained. He picked it up by the stem and examined it gingerly, as though it might explode, and remarked, “You forgot to cut the top off.” He briefly considered lobbing the offending berry into the smoothie glass, but reconsidered this action when I barked, “Don’t even think about it, mister!” Instead, he plunked it down on the table, took a couple of sips of the smoothie, and then forgot about it until he realized it could be used as a delaying tactic at bedtime. At which point he desired it passionately.

But, you know? It didn’t bother me. Even as I was pouring drinks and slicing strawberries and arranging everything just so, I knew that my kids probably wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about my efforts at plating. I was doing it for me. And now, for you. Because you? You appreciate things.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Orchestral manoeuvres in the dark

In the latest round of our ongoing game of musical beds, Rowan has spent the past few nights on an air mattress (yes, that air mattress) in our room, while Auntie Kathryn occupies the “blue” room he usually sleeps in.

It’s quite sweet, really, to peer over the side of the bed and see a small person, tucked up in the little nest we’ve created by the window. Twice now, he has climbed into our bed from his during the wee hours of the night, and — because I don’t seem able to sleep with his elbow in my solar plexus — I have decamped for the spare bed in what is currently Isaac’s room or gently but insistently escorted Rowan back into his own bed.

But not before reveling for at least a few moments in the glory of his almost-tiny body snuggled between the two of ours, the quiet intimacy of three bodies in the sleep-heavy night, lying under the blades of the slowly oscillating ceiling fan.

When Rowan was a newborn, a young baby, he loved the light fixture above our bed. He lay on his back between me and Rachel, cooing and kicking at the round white bulb. If we turned it on, his whole body wriggled in paroxysms of joy. He spent a lot of time in those early months lying between us, talking to the ceiling. But, back then, awash in a tsunami of sleep deprivation and consequent anxiety, I did not revel. I worried. I angsted. I fretted that we were doing everything wrong, that we were somehow harming him even as he lay happy next to me, that he would never sleep and that I wouldn’t, either. I wondered why all the other new parents I know didn’t seem to be slowly going insane, desperate with the knowledge that they had made a huge, irrevocable, mistake.

One early January morning, lying next to my nursing baby, Rachel spooning him from the other side, a tiny voice managed to work its way through the fretting. “You all look so beautiful,” it said, and for the first time I imagined what we must look like to the outside world: three tired bodies, two parents surrounding a breast-feeding child, warm under a nest of feather duvets and receiving blankets. And I realized in that moment that we did look beautiful, but that — more importantly — we also looked just fine, like we were handling things, like we were okay. Good, even. And I realized that, in fact, that all the other parents I saw with their babies must have had moments of sheer terror and desperation, too. Which, somehow, helped make things feel a bit less scary.

I hung onto that moment for a long time, reminding myself that we were okay. Which we were, all along, even if it took months more to relax into. Which is why, even as he wakes me from deep sleep, even as he jams his toes between my legs to warm them up and asks me to fetch him some water, I revel in my son’s — and now my sons’ — occasional presence in my bed. I revel that they can be there and it is at worst a mild disruption, not cause for despair. I revel in the heads heavy on my shoulder even as my arm falls asleep. And then I fall asleep, or I move them, or move me, and the night continues.

This morning at about 4 AM, I coughed, as quietly as I could, into my pillow.

“Mom!” came a voice from the side of our bed.


“You woke me up!”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

And it was.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Bad babies

Look! It’s Friday afternoon! The sun is shining, I have a head cold to go with my bronchitis, a cherished friend is coming in for the weekend, and — yay! — I don’t have to write a new blog entry, because the following story, about how we found out that Rowan was a boy, just appeared in the wonderful magazine Brain, Child’s “Backtalk” section. Have a great weekend.

“Do you want to know the sex?” the ultrasound technician asked at my 18-week prenatal appointment.

“Yes,” I said, “but instead of telling me, can you just show me the anatomy on the screen so I can see for my—”

“It’s a boy,” she said.

O-kay. Moving right along, the technician did the anatomical scan. She kept trying to get good pictures of the baby’s various parts, but he (now that I knew he was a he) wasn’t in the right position. She tsk-tsked a few times over the uncooperative fetus, and then said, “What a bad baby.”

I was stunned. My partner was stunned. Who calls a baby — an unborn baby, no less — “bad”?

“A very bad baby,” she said again, as she tried to get a picture of his femur or something. And then, just in case we missed it, again: “Very, very bad.” I guess she’d skipped the sensitivity training day.

She sent me off to the washroom to pee and drink some water, to try to get my bad baby moving so that she could get the pictures she needed. I sat on the toilet, reeling, awash in my first moment of parental protectiveness. Who the hell was this woman? And how dare she call my baby “bad”?

I emerged from the washroom. “So,” the technician asked, wand in hand, “did you tell this bad baby to cooperate?”

“No,” I said, sweetly as I could. “I told him not to be scared of the mean lady.”