Friday, April 30, 2004

At the zenith

Salon today begins biweekly reviews of new science fiction and fantasy books.

Starting with The Zenith Angle, by Bruce Sterling.

Forget about the plot, a contrivance that barely holds the weight of the passions Sterling is striving to release. The entire novel is a setup for an extraordinary rant that reads as if the author had just taken over the podium at a hackers conference, fueled with tequila, frothing from every pore.

Ooh. I love a good rant.

Sterling's outburst, his choice of protagonist, his rants about computers and the Net, all struck so close to home, to my own daily intellectual life, that it became almost impossible to evaluate, dispassionately, anything so absurdly binary as whether "The Zenith Angle" is good or bad. Instead, like all great rants, it is breathtaking. It is a document of the age, a summing up by one of the digital revolution's pioneer artists. That such an ex post facto manifesto would be filled with tears of rage instead of joy is something few of us would have imagined when first we logged on.

We don't know if it's "science fiction, or a mere techno-thriller," but we don't care.

"Viruses. Worms. Scam artists. Porn. Spam. Denial-of-service attacks. Organized crime. Industrial espionage. Stalking. Money Laundering. The specter of infowar attacks on natural gas pipelines, aircraft control systems, dams, water reservoirs, sewage systems, telephones, and banks. Black horses snorting and stomping in the stables of the Digital Apocalypse."

I just knew there was an apocalypse comng on. Quick, get me a copy of this book.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

I suspect other people's brains may be cooler than mine

Dan Engber recaps the Decade of the Brain and the plethora of brain–mind books it spawned:

Indeed, when any work of popular neuroscience inevitably appeals to the stunning complexity of the human brain, it all amounts to the same thing: Hey, that's my brain they're talking about. And it's fucking amazing.

Nature or nurture? Self-determination or biological fact?

Both, obviously.

Ten years later a new breed of neurological self-help books has emerged.

John J. Ratey's User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain explains how "activities actually expand the number and strength of neural connections devoted to a skill." Richard Restak's Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential assures readers that "moment-to-moment actions sculpt the brain's structure and function," and Schwartz and Begley go to great lengths to remind us that self-directed therapy can "literally reprogram your brain."

This is an exciting concept, until you realize how trite it is. . . We hardly need evidence of shifting cortical maps to confirm what we already know: that skills improve with practice, and that it's possible to learn new things.

Try as I might, I just can't seem to make my brain appreciate self-help books of any kind. Is there a book on that?

The 90s cult of Presence

Where did it come from, exactly, this new insistence that parents be always present at their children's sporting events, and even at the most minor of school events? 50s children like me had seemed to do fine spending their childhood in roles largely subservient to their parents', unwatched much of the time at our baseball games and school activities, at least not watched with the anxiety with which today's parents watch.

You can read "A Brief History of the (Over)involved Father," by Anthony Giardina, at Salon. It's an excerpt from The Bastard on the Couch: 27 Men Try Really Hard to Explain Their Feelings About Love, Loss, Fatherhood, and Freedom, an anthology edited by Daniel Jones.

Fathers are as befuddled by parenthood in the new millennium as mothers are. The influences behind the confusion may be little different — it all comes down to (re)defining manliness — but there are more male/female similarities than not.

In fact, Giardina's qualms have more to do with giving up the city and the image of his ideal life.

In Manhattan, I had thought of children as delightful appendages to the serious business of life: strap them on your back and take them where you need to go. . . [But now] I was in the park, strapped on the back of my daughter's life: she was taking me where she wanted to go.

There are no easy resolutions, of course.

The Bastard anthology is the male take on The Bitch in the House, Cathi Hanauer's book about contemporary women's issues. (She and editor Jones are married.) Bastard's essays tackle lying, cheating, logging on, being alone — y'know, guy stuff.

Jones in interview doesn't say anything enlightening, but he does note a phenomenon I've noticed and wondered about: "a man's sense that it's somehow not polite to criticize his wife in public. After all, he's got to live with her, and she's angry enough already. For whatever reason, most women I know don't share this inhibition. They tend to fire away. And I don't even think their husbands mind that much."

The essays doesn't offer much insight, nothing new in the male perspective on being male at this point in our history, but men may choose to read it for a sense of camaraderie, to know they're not alone.

The tone of "Bitch" is definitely more aggressive. It's about women going after what they want, making great strides and finding great frustration along the way. But at least they are on the move and going out and grabbing what they want. Men, on the other hand, are often on the losing side of this new power equation in many relationships, and there's something about the men that is more reactionary and on the defensive. They are on the whole very decent guys, trying to please and to do the right thing, but often they wind up feeling frustrated, resented, unneeded. Still, it's refreshing to see among the men here that these aren't men who opt to leave their families because of these conflicts.

I suspect more women than men will be picking up copies.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Getting it wrong

Steve Hartman took a "witty" look at corrections on 60 Minutes II this evening.

Here’s another from The Wall Street Journal. Apparently they wrote Canada had 11 provinces when it really has 10. Hey, it’s Canada — as long as you’re within 2-3 provinces, that’s close enough.

No, they don't do many corrections in broadcast news, but perhaps they should do more apologies.

Is parenthood artless?

Bookninja points to an article that tangentially raises some really interesting questions on the relationship between art and parenthood.

One line stands out in Cyril Connolly’s famous memoir-manifesto: "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall."

Are they mutually exclusive? Of course not.

Parenthood is often seen as a messy, graceless fact of life. How could it be conducive to or the inspiration for the sublime that is art.

Art is often seen as a selfish pursuit; childlessness (and perhaps childishness too) is another example of the artist's "selfishness." Yet, art persists despite and sometimes because of the presence of children.

Journalism at its best has the same urgent imperative as a crying child. It’s pretty hard to ignore and it makes you want to help, even if comfort is impossible.

To what extent do artistic sensibility in a parent and the skills and changed worldviews of parenting nurture each other?

If parenthood changes the wiring in our brains, is the nature of art produced therafter also changed?

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Ants in her pants

Helena was a squirmy baby. Now we've achieved a whole new level of squirminess.

Toddler. One who toddles. To toddle. Toddling.

Used metaphorically when applied to the city of Chicago: "that toddlin' town."

I love that word.

We meant to stay housebound yesterday, what with it being rainy and gray, but a break in the weather seemed a good opportunity for a run to the grocery store. Maybe help lull Helena into a state of sleepiness.

The grocery store is three and a half short blocks away. In that stretch we passed 5 squirrels (at ground level), 4 pigeons (at ground level), and 2 dogs. The approach of each brought on squeals of delight, a stream of baby-babble words, and much waving. As I pushed the stroller on by, laughs turned to shrieks of torment, then settled into that moany baby whine only parents ever develop a tolerance for. I thought she'd bite through the stroller straps to make a break for it.

The way home was as bad, so rather than hang a left I went straight through to the park, thinking, "She'll tire herself out in a few minutes; she's napped barely an hour today."

The playground was mucky. Ugh. And I hadn't put proper outdoor toddlin' shoes on her before leaving. But I let her go. Only two other kids with their mom there. Of course, they were in the bouncy fire chief's car. Sigh.

The squirrels were bold. Two in particular, which I remember from last summer. I've never seen squirrels that colour — a creamy light, winter white shade, but not albino. For these parts they're huge, healthy. And they're back.

They prey on that playground. One each climbing the only two strollers there. The little rat got his grimy paws on my baguette, the bastard!

I was a little tense for the rest of our outing. I even lugged the stroller 'cross the wet sand (instead of leaving it parked at the side, as is my and everyone's usual practice), keeping pace with Helena. We started heading home, then Helena decided to head off in the opposite direction. The equivalent of 6 city blocks later, I wrangled her back into her seat. She did not sleep.

(She did eventually fall asleep face-first into her supper.)

For today I'd planned a book-shopping expedition.

Nicholas Hoare was a bust. Does it qualify as an independent bookseller? Four stores in three cities — that's a chain. Anyway, this particular outlet had a more paltry selection than usual. Every time I hear Mr Hoare as the guest on the radio noon call-in show, he plays up the 'we can order any book you want' factor. I thought about trying that once. Four weeks, they told me. Amazon, within days. If you stocked more interesting things that I've never heard of more regularly, I'd be more likely to stumble across them in my browsing.

Chapters. Shame on me. (I have got to find some "independent" English-language bookstores in this town.)

I took more time browsing than was to Helena's liking, so I let her out of the stroller, which effectively put an end to my shopping. She zipped through aisles for a while, but finally settled down to work on a project of her own devising — moving the stack of boxed-set alphabet books from the shelf to the floor. This kept her happy and distracted while I finished up; then we moved them back. (I let her loose in a department store once. That was a mistake. I have yet to figure out how to manage the toddler–shopping thing.)

On the recommendations of people I barely know (but whom I know better than Amazon reviewers and whom I trust more than some friends, who've exhibited faulty judgement), we came away with Jamberry, by Bruce Degan, and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, by Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle.

By all early indications: they're perfect.

Jamberry is lovely. The rhymes are fanciful ("Hatberry/ Shoeberry/ In my canoeberry"). The illustrations are soft and sweet, out of the ordinary in this era of colour and mayhem.

Both books are exactly appropriate to Helena's "stage of development" in that they're not long, complex stories (in a more traditional sense of the word — like, say, fairy tales, filled with words), but they're more stimulating than basic picture/vocabulary books (there's more than one word per page) and in this they satisfy my need to be entertained. They have the bones of a narrative structure, with lots of potential for exploring illustrations and imagining backstory.

Helena has sat quietly to be read to from each of these, with giggling and pointing and an expression of wonder on her face.

Over the last week, she has been spontaneously "asking" to be read to. She's always bringing me things, including books. Sometimes it's simply to show me stuff, other times it's part of her massive reorganizations plans, and sometimes it's because she wants me to do something for her. I've tried this "reading on demand" thing before, but it never held Helena's interest. It seems something's clicked with her. Add to this that I'm learning to read her signals better and we have material that's suited to her level.

(Bedtime reading had never worked for us. Helena has no problem being put to be bed and quietly examining a toy or "reading to herself" for a few minutes before falling asleep. If J-F or myself is present, it only inspires her to jump and climb. So we find quiet time during the day for reading, but it's not a strictly enforced schedule.)

I haven't cracked a book for my own reading pleasure in days. My brain's feeling a bit mushy.

There's a reading list making the blog rounds. You can see the list at Scribbling Woman. Classics of one sort or another. I'm embarrassed to say I haven't read very many.

I fare significantly better on the alternate list, more modern and international.

While it'd be nice if the original list offered some alternatives for works by an author (Love in the Time of Cholera or 100 Years of Solitude), I'm not sure the alternate does better in listing so many multiples (five by Jane Austen).

Then there's the list of children's books. I'm familiar with very few, but will keep the list as a handy reference.

The problem with lists: break them down by genre, age-group, nationality?

What's with our fascination with lists?

I don't know how I feel

Sesame Street has a new resident muppet: drawlin', plain-talkin', straight-shootin' talk-show host Dr Feel (read: McGraw). He feels how you're feeling.

How are you feeling? What are your feelings on that? I feel that from you. How does that make you feel?

(Today's guest was feeling hungry.)

Maybe it was just a one-time skit. Maybe he's not a regular.

I feel pretty weird about the whole thing.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

Just how smart are those pants?

Helena's a genius. I spent a couple hours yesterday filling out forms, calculating our income tax. The calculator goes missing from the edge of the table — Helena is the obvious culprit. J-F and I both search high and low — well, low. J-F finally just asks her, "Where did you put the calculator?" and he punches some numbers into his hand. Helena immediately toddles through the kitchen, sits herself down in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, and points behind the cat food. And there it is. Coincidence?

Words we've heard her say (some of them not very often, but I'm counting them anyway):
bibi = baby
bay = bagel
ba = ball
bam = bam (boom)
ban = banana
be = bear
bye = bye
ca = car
coco = cocotte (acorn, French; J-F's term of endearment for her)
do = dog
googligoogligoogli = cookie
Helena = Helena
hiye = hi
kookoo = kookoo (peekaboo)
llllle = lait (milk, French)
lala = lala (doll, Polish)
la = le chat (cat, French; don't ask how it turned out that way)
mama = mama
ne = nie (no, Polish)
no = nose
ohno = oh no!
papa = papa
pahta = pasta
pen = pen
piht = pita
teh = tête (head, French)
toy = toy
to = toast
water = water
whassat = what's that
wow = wow

We've had a great weekend, and I'm sure the reason for this is the fabulous haircut I got on Friday. Nothing else can explain how great I feel.

I was flipping channels yesterday and what do I see? Roger Daltrey doing an infomercial. How sad it that?! Hope I die before I get old — my ass! Does he need the money? Does he so strongly believe the world needs to know about The Legends of Rock 'n' Roll cd set?

We watched Cold Creek Manor last night. It was awful. I have nothing to say about the movie itself, but:

I hate hearing people say the city is no place to raise children. (That's essentially what the opening scenes tell us. I guess they felt the need to explain to us why they were moving out to the country, which is just silly. Besides, some really bad shit happened to them out there, much worse than could transpire in an urban setting.)

Who designs DVD menus? Do they not realize how very much more user-friendly they could be? The problem is always worst with language set-up — one never knows what the current setting is. It seems to me that it's only very recently than menu designers have caught on a little and are highlighting selections more obviously.

Then there's the scenes. Is it the director who divvies them up this way? The average viewer does not care about the cinematographic continuity blah blah film scene. I just want to be able to find my spot after running out to pick up beer or to figure out the next morning at what point I fell asleep. The more scenes the better. Less than 20 (this one had 13, one of which was credits) is inconsiderate.

There's a profile online of Mimi Smartypants and her new book. It doesn't add anything to what I already know from reading her own blog, except to tell us that Smartypants is not her real name. Another illusion shattered. But she's so funny.

I finished reading The Book of Illusions (book 12 for the year), by Paul Auster. I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other work. I'll leave it at that — for the moment, I'm all Austered out.

A lot of bloggers have been listing their top 10 books, and it's hard to resist doing the same. I didn't realize how difficult it would be to compose such a list. I keep scanning my shelves, remembering plots, hoping to be struck by a particular work's "masterpiece-ness." Some of them are not "great" books, but they're among my favourites.

1. Babel Tower, AS Byatt
2. Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino
3. Diaries, Witold Gombrowicz
4. The Master of Go, Yasunari Kawabata
5. The Good Terrorist, Doris Lessing
6. The First Century After Beatrice, Amin Maalouf
7. All the Names, Jose Saramago; but maybe Blindness
8. The Razor's Edge, W Somerset Maugham
9. We, Eugene Zamiatin

Number 10 is a toss-up. Even the first 9 I could split into "outstandingly superior great works of art" and "really, really, really good books."

Number 10: Pilgrim, Timothy Findley? The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov? Dictionary of the Khazars, Milorad Pavic? Atwood? There should be some Atwood. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding?

Friday, April 23, 2004

It's Austerific

Return of the Reluctant threw it out there:

Will someone explain why Auster's the shit? Will someone tell me why this Peter Stillman nonsense is so important?

That's really asking for it. Discussion is opening up.

All of which was inspired by, contributed to, and followed up on at Rake's Progress.

Then there's the analysis of Auster's work Rake's Progress pointed to. (Which I will read this weekend. Starting now. OK, maybe tomorrow.) (Also referenced was "A Reader's Manifesto," which I read years ago and should revisit. Tomorrow. Or the day after.)

So is Auster about the story after all? He is and he isn't. Sure, he tells stories. But they don't go anywhere. They're instances, flashes of insight, coincidental. In fact, Auster, rather, his narrators are cognizant of the stories within stories having no saisfactory resolution and are driven to pursue them. That is the story. The pursuit. Kind of.

Note to self: read less, think more. Maybe that'll help.

Thursday, April 22, 2004


Maud Newton quotes an article from the London Times about Paul Auster:

He confides that this year's US election has whipped him up into a lather. "I am burning with passion about this whole campaign," he growls. "For me, it feels almost like a matter of life and death for Americans that we get Bush out of office."

His political leanings don't strike me as particularly newsworthy, but had someone told he was a Republican, I'd be really upset.

Paul Auster has written lyrics for a song, which can be downloaded from (I don't think it's very good.)

I should just change the name of this blog to Magnificent Austerpus already.

I'm still reading The Book of Illusions. I'll post a complete impression when I'm finished.


After a busy morning of engineering (Helena constructed a tower of five Lego blocks) and reorganization (Helena relocated all the pairs of pantyhose she owns and which she has never worn from the bottom dresser drawer to just outside the bathroom door), we had "pahta" for lunch.

(Pasta. It's obvious to me now. I'm learning to put words in my baby's mouth.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Unfortunate event

Cup of Chicha points to commentary on the Lemony Snicket movie trailer.

I, too, am giddy with anticipation.

The egregious miscasting of Jim Carrey as Count Olaf looks to be every bit as ruinous as I feared. Judging by this 1-minute TV spot, he's playing it like, well, Jim Carrey, with all the eyebrow-wiggling, face-clenching, spazzified awfulness that generally entails. Olaf is not meant to be camp. Sure, a bit of melodramatic flair wouldn't go amiss, but above all he should be somber, sinister, and genuinely creepy. The series' mordant wit can't possibly translate effectively to screen with this spastic monkey prancing about, crooning "Look at me! I'm Jim Carrey!" They needed somebody who could play it straight — Christopher Walken maybe, or Crispin Glover (god, he'd be perfect).

She's right — Crispin Glover would've been perfect. But Sunny looks great!


What Oprah wants you to read next

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter:

Talk about a stunning literary debut! The first novel from then 23-year-old Carson McCullers, this Depression-era tale set in small-town Georgia explores the mysteries of the human heart with a haunting cast of characters.

No, I haven't read it, and I probably won't anytime soon. (So many books, so little time.)

It sounds like tackling foreign literature took a toll on the poor little brains of San Diego moms and readers across the country.

Why do you care what I'm reading?

I've noticed that a number of people are arriving at this blog via All Consuming.

All Consuming is a website that visits recently updated weblogs every hour, checking them for links to books on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Sense, and other book sites. Every book on this site has a list of all the weblogs that have mentioned it, and every weblog that has mentioned books in the past also has a page here listing which books it has mentioned.

Like, wow. It never occurred to me that there would be websites like that and that people would want its services. Not all that surprising really, now that I think about it.

Still, why would anyone trust a blog over a "legitimate," professional, published review for guidance in reading material? I mean, unless they're a blogstalker and they've been reading you obsessively for months, long enough to have developed a fondness for your nonsense, a sense of trust in your opinion.

In which case, they would go to the trusted blog directly for reading recommendations. Why would they refer to a list compiling the opinions of stranger-bloggers?

Are they the same people who find the inane reviews at Amazon useful?

I make a point of not linking to Amazon whenever I can help it. (Not yet one of those Amazon Associate sellouts, but maybe soon.) I prefer to link to a good review or article or the book's or author's official website. When none of these exists, I'll link to a book-selling site if I firmly believe you ought to find out a bit more on that particular work.

So, do you really care what I'm reading?


Sitting at the kitchen table, Helena points out the window at the dogs in the park across the street and starts barking.

We set off for the park's toddler playground yesterday. (No snow anywhere!) The sign insists that you must be between the ages of 2 and 6 to enjoy the equipment, but I've seen Helena-aged babies in there before. No one carded us at the gate. Have shoes, will toddle.

Helena was more interested in exercising her walking skills across a vast plain of sand than in "playing" on playground equipment, which is just as well. She did try to engage a fellow baby in a game of peek-a-boo, but this stranger was too busy eating dirt.

We went on the swings! (I mean that royally. Helena went on the swings. No adult-sized swings in the vicinity.) I love swings! Helena, too, loves swings! The mirth!

We were distracted by some sexy-hot guy doing super-high amazing backflips to entertain his 4-year-old daughter. Wow.

And we saw jugglers! Buskers in training, I think. Helena's standards for street/park performance aren't too high yet.

We nipped by the grocery and I was exhausted by the time we returned home. I did not have the strength to lug baby up to the third floor, and I didn't think I had it in me to make two trips to collect our shopping bags. So for the first time ever, Helena makes her way up to our apartment all by herself.

I rested a little while Helena Swiffered the living room floor.

Toddling rocks!

Quick and confused

It's Neal Stephenson day at Salon. And pretty much everywhere.

Confusion has just come out, and I haven't even read Quicksilver yet. For the time-being it's too big and expensive. For the all the anticipation of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, the enthusiasm for Quicksilver fizzled out fairly quickly.

(The more I heard about it, the more I thought it might bore me as much as did Iain Pears' An Instance of the Fingerpost, which I was reading when Quicksilver was released.)

In sum, Salon's review of Confusion tells us it's excessive and fun:

Plunge away! "The Confusion" finally does start to connect the dots, and where "Quicksilver" bogged down, "The Confusion" leaps nimbly forward.

Over at Rake's Progress, Stephenson is being taken to task over his statement that: "In arty lit, it's become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se."

Hmmm. There's not enough coffee for me to deal with this. I read sci-fi (not a lot, but some), and what I read, I tend to love, for the ideas, not because the books are well-written with a fine sense of character. Arty lit? what's that? Some of it is in fact dreadfully boring.

I've only just skimmed through Salon's interview with Stephenson, and will set it aside for a closer reading on the weekend. One thing that did jump out at me was his reference to Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error (a really great read, by the way), which springs from a case study of Phineas Gage, who survived an iron spike through the head.

Damasio is arguing that one of the innate faculties of our brain is that we can envision a wide range of possible scenarios and then sort through them very quickly not by logic but through a kind of process of the emotions.

This is not accurate. We tend to set up the traditional dichotomy in terms of rational and emotional, but Damasio is quite clear that the not-rational aspect at play is more a social behaviour, part learned, part instinct, which, yes, has some emotional elements but also has its own logic. That is, I think Stephenson is arguing against a duality that scientists themselves do not actually embrace. (In the end, we all agree that the rational and emotional are complex and intertwined.)

Maud Newton points to an interview at Wired News in which Stephenson proclaims cyberpunk "over."

Man, I loved Snowcrash.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Smart cookie, tough cookie, good egg

Since I started blogging in part to record for posterity Helena's development, I should get on with it:

Helena is simply magical. 17 months today.

I diligently recorded her firsts — first laugh, first time rolling over, first teeth. Changes are registering with me in a different way now. Though there are still many lightbulb moments, changes tend to be a gradual evolution, the foundations already laid. The achievements are so natural, so obvious, they don't hold the punch to run to phone, "Guess what Helena just did?!" (or to run to the blog for that matter). The accomplishments, however, are more remarkable, more awesome than ever.

She's really toddling. Those months of careful study really paid off. She's fast, coordinated, confident. She picks up objects and totes them easily. She's comfortable on all surfaces. She's a natural. The only hesitation she shows is in negotiating the half-inch step from the hallway to our bedroom.

She's experimenting with using objects (armrests, tabletops) as a kind of handrail (walking alongside, rather than facing something and walking sideways). I don't know why.

She doesn't like being led by the hand.

It's a bit unnerving — from our playing she's learned to Frankenzombie walk and make monster noises (if high-pitched). Admittedly it's more fun than regular walking and talking, but I wonder if I'd devoted the energy to these practical life skills they might be a little better developed.

She says "pen." She says "pen" in reference to a pen.

She's successfully mimicking both vocalizations and gestures. If I "la, la, la" a couple notes, she'll return them. If I make her toy bear dance, she tries to make it do the same.

She holds her hand out, palm up, awkwardly, and makes "kitty" noises to call the cats. (They don't come.)

She loves to sing. I don't recognize any melodies, but she's trying. She particularly enjoys singing along, "la, la, la," with the national anthem, before the hockey game (go Habs!) or at the 6 a.m. station sign-on when she turns the TV on in our bedroom before we've fully hauled ourselves out of bed.

She insists on helping me clean the tub, run the bath. She's figured out the faucets. (She figured out the drain stopper weeks ago.)

I set meals down in front of her and it's unusual to have to spoon anything into her or otherwise encourage her. She's been feeding herself for months.

She loves playing with the Fisher Price Play Family House that I played with more than 30 years ago. (Part of me fears she's a little young, that the pieces are swallowable.) She insists on putting the 1970s-style kitchen furniture in the garage. I can't say I blame her.

She's developed an obsession with the cutting boards. (We have one each of blue, orange, white, black.) She pulls them out of the cupboard, sits on them, spins on them, slides along on them. She tiles them in various configurations in the middle of the kitchen floor.

From her pile of blocks, Helena sorts the squares out to one side and stands them on end. The triangles are pulled out to the other side. I think this is really weird actually, even if brilliant.

Simply magical.


Helena spent part of the weekend at my mother-in-law's. I wasn't too keen on the arrangement at first, but it's just as well, cuz I slept 12 hours straight. It also gave me the chance to scrub the mould off the bathroom ceiling, from which my shoulders still ache.

J-F was home from work a few days last week and has been on antibiotics since Friday. Finally he's feeling better. He's had what I had a month ago — a very sore throat, with virtually no other typical cold or flu symptoms, except for the fatigue. There's a lot of fatigue.

He's also taken to pulling his turtleneck up over his face, stuffing a pillow under his shirt, and doing jumping jacks while yelling "Boohbah!" Must be the drugs.

Still no definitive verdict on Boohbah from this household. I've come to appreciate storyworld — the light, colour, texture, and movement are surreal and, to my mind, very attractive, like a storybook. Helena is enthralled by the physical exertions of the children and inspired to explore the possibilities of her own physicality. The Boohbahs themselves, though, are kind of creepy. I think it's the penis-heads.

Contrary to all threats and promises, we had only 5 minutes of thunder the other night. I love thunderstorms. I want more.

Last week, the (man-made) lake in the park across the street still had snow along its banks. Half the lake. Rather, one of the two lakes connected by a trickle. The other, melted half-lake is already home to a couple of ducks, which materialized from I know not where.

We'll wander over today to ensure that the snow is in fact all gone.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Page by page

Distributed Proofreaders was founded in 2000 to support the digitization of Public Domain books.

You too can contribute to Project Gutenberg.

The preservation of books and knowledge. A noble cause, that.

Thanks to Scribbling Woman for leading me there.

I've incorporated this volunteer work into my daily routine. It keeps me in practice and out of trouble between projects.

How depressing...

An article in The Washington Post this weekend discusses the lack of clinical evidence for the efficacy of antidepressants in children.

The use of antidepressants among children grew three- to tenfold between 1987 and 1996, data from various studies indicate, and a newer survey found a further 50 percent rise in prescriptions between 1998 and 2002. The explosion in antidepressant use occurred even though the vast majority of clinical trials have failed to prove that the medicines help depressed children.

The spike in prescriptions over the past five years has been especially sharp among children younger than 6, even though there is virtually no clinical trial data on these youngest patients.

Obviously, it's dangerous to extrapolate data from trials on adults to children — our bodies work differently and will not metabolize drugs in the same way. However, doctors are relying on anecdotal evidence to support their practice of prescribing antidepressants for children.

Paxil has been linked to suicidal behaviour, but psychiatrists cast doubt on the authority of the regulatory bodies by insisting that the suicidal behaviour stems from the underlying depression.

What the article fails to address, and to my mind the greater issue, is how many children are being prescribed antidepressants. How many under 6 years of age? How are they being diagnosed? How can you tell if your toddler has depression?

Is it moodiness? Listlessness? The occasional "inexplicable" bout of screams or tears? How does hopelessness manifest itself in a baby? Need an individual be aware of one's feelings, be able to name them, in order to experience them? How can you tell if the behaviour is biochemically based and not a learned product of one's environment?

The American Psychiatric Glossary entry for "depression" states the following: Depression in children may be indicated by refusal to go to school, anxiety, excessive reaction to separation form parental figures, antisocial behavior, and somatic complaints.

My gut tells me this is ridiculous. I'm fortunate, for the timebeing, in having a daughter who is expressively joyful. But, had depression had the social acknowledgement it has today as an illness, I fear that some 30 years ago my mother might've given me drugs — to overcome the shyness, to inspire more obviously extroverted behaviour, to get me off to school with less resistance.

Who is taking their children to psychiatrists, and why? It's finally dawning on some people that perhaps antidepressants are being overprescribed in adults. Is this just another symptom of our quick-fix society being extended to our children?

What child doesn't experience some of the symptoms some of the time? Are they really troubled by their "shortcomings," or is it the parents who perceive a problem? Are parents trotting their children off to the doctors for a pill instead of helping them discover a new hobby or going down to the park to run around? (Could I ask any more rhetorical questions?)

When, hypothetically, 50% of society is taking a pill so they be more up, more on, it stands to reason that the "deviant," down, introspective, "depressed" behaviour ought to be redefined to be incorporated into the range of normalcy. So what are the numbers?

There may yet come the day of soma, or, more likely, the mandatory speed and steroid injections at birth, the artificial jolt all of us will require in order to keep up with the breakneck demands of preschool.

Saturday, April 17, 2004


Not many people are worthy of an apprentice. Oprah could have an apprentice, but she'd likely take the responsibility too seriously. Martha Stewart's out of the running. Jamie Oliver maybe. Bill Gates? How about a newspaper mogul? Know any sorcerors?

You need an empire to have an apprentice. Frankly, there aren't many emperors out there, certainly not likeable ones. It would take a special someone to match The Donald for drawing a television audience.

I'm glad Bill won. Maybe when his contract is up he could have his own apprentice.

(Bill's salary, by the way, is being paid by NBC, not by Trump. According to something I read somewhere.)

(Was there a consolation prize? Maybe Kwame could run Iraq.)

I love the premise of The Apprentice. It's everything realilty tv can be. I'm glad a second season is in the works. But I'd like to see something a little different now — not just different contestants, but a different mentor, different tasks, a different lifestyle at stake.

I'd love to see a couple dozen people vying to land a job at a top New York publishing house, complete with $22,000 annual salary, by completing tasks such as photocopying manuscripts and refilling staplers. It's not easy.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Lucidity at last

News on one of my favourite authors!:

Jose Saramago and the Portuguese government have kissed and made up. Well, they lunched.

"I think you never should never, from a political point of view, try to condition creative expression," said Durao Barroso, adding he had read most of Saramago's books.

"It is my duty as prime minister to highlight what is great in Portugal and Jose Saramago is one of the great names in Portuguese literature who will be studied for years if not centuries to come," he added.

The article also indicates that a new novel, Essay on Lucidity, has recently been released in Portuguese.

I'm still awaiting the release later this year of The Double in English. The description bears an eery resemblance to Paul Auster's Ghosts, which I recently reread.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Reading aloud

Helena will be 17 months old in a few days. She does not particularly enjoy being read to.

We once made it to just two pages shy of the end of Are You My Mother?, but generally to hold her attention through a typical board book, front to end, is impossible.

Does it mean anything? Is she destined to not enjoy books? Is her attention span really short? How do most kids relate to books? To being read to? Honestly, how many parents read to their kids? Regularly? Do they actually read the storybooks, or do they talk about the pictures and go off on various tangents? How long are these stories? Do the kids enjoy being read to? Or have they learned to put up with it?

I'm preparing myself to accept that Helena is absolutely her own person and in no way an extension of myself. Her personality is stronger every day, and it's not mine.

What if she doesn't like to read?

I'm following with interest Reading to My Kid, as well as some more typical diary-type mommy blogs, for the answers to my questions. She who reads to her kid seems to have a librarian's sensibility regarding children's books, so I will take notes. I haven't a clue what makes a good children's book, what holds a child's attention.

Sure, I remember the books I enjoyed when I was little, but I don't remember any books before I discovered Nancy Drew. (I don't remember much about any aspect of life before that time.)

I certainly do not remember being read to, though my sister (who was into her teens when I was toddling) assures me it happened, at least occasionally. I turned out all right. Somehow I even came to love books.

Are readers born, or made?

I do read aloud while Helena does other stuff. And for months she's enjoyed "reading" by herself. She climbs into the chair, book in hand, and goes back and forth through it, pointing and mumbling-as-if-reading.

Since when is reading something other than a solitary pursuit anyway?

Bookninja pointed to this article on Alberto Manguel. (Makes me wish I'd gone to see him at Blue Metropolis.)

Manguel as a teenager was asked to read to a blind Jorge Luis Borges. Blindness. That's one good reason for being read to.

I recall the movie La Lectrice, in which a young woman's services as a reader were for hire.

Perhaps to enjoy being read to demands an old-world sensibility.

Many people attend readings, for many reasons, but these have more to do with the social rather than intimate aspects.

Do lovers really read to each other in bed?

Reading aloud to children can help inspire literacy and discussion, respect for literature, even an intimacy with books. But I'm not sure it creates readers where there were none before.

Helena has already learned that books have many purposes: seating, building blocks, chewing material, as well as entertainment from the content within. It'll be up to her if she likes what they have to tell her, and if she wants to hear about it or find it out for herself.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Choosing sex

60 Minutes II looked at gender selection this evening, after the story was on the wires a week ago.

Still unanswered: are people choosing boys or girls?

Taking the artist out of the art

Here's why art and artist should be considered separately:

Ender's Game is a great book.

But Orson Scott Card is a little weird. Right-wing. Intolerant.

Calling a homosexual contract "marriage" does not make it reproductively relevant and will not make it contribute in any meaningful way to the propagation of civilization.

In fact, it will do harm. Nowhere near as much harm as we have already done through divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. But it's another nail in the coffin. Maybe the last nail, precisely because it is the most obvious and outrageous attack on what is left of marriage in America.

Since I first read the article this morning, the blogosphere has already written the thoughts that had been formulating in my mind while I worked the day away.

We hope we're all astute enough, objective enough, to judge a work on its own merit. I've never been a fan of biography as a means of interpretation and criticism. The problem: when the artist's worldview seeps into the work.

Take for example Mel Gibson and "The Passion of the Christ." The film is not a mere work of art; Gibson proclaims it to be the deepest expression of his soul, of God. Does it matter that his father is anti-Semitic? Maybe. How can the art not be coloured, just a little, by its creator? The art is never pure. We deserve full disclosure.

I read Ender's Game about five years ago, and I'd like to start rereading it this weekend. Family, family structure, family values did figure into the story. It will, I'm sure, remain a great book, a powerful premise. But I'm afraid, too, it will mean a little bit more.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Random passage

Another awe-inspiring, time-wasting, fortune-telling diversion:

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 23.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.

Yes, I break down in front of four hundred strangers and lose my mind.
(The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster)

Monday, April 12, 2004

Raising a superbaby

Good news. Quebeckers are much less likely to spank than most Canadian parents. (Their children, that is.)

Quebeckers were also less likely than most Canadians to agree that using flashcards and playing classical music for young children boosts their intelligence — an opinion that is backed up by researchers who say there is no concrete evidence that either of these activities has such a benefit.

I'm not sure I qualify as a Quebecker yet, but as far as parenting goes, I fit right in.

You heard me say it here, folks: flashcards are idiotic.

As for classical music, I listen to a lot of it, because I like it, and Helena seems to like it, not because "it's good for the baby." We listen to the real stuff, not baby toy piano renditions. Mozart? Overrated. Bach for the mathematical perfection, Beethoven for the emotional gut-wrenching experience. Erik Satie to melt the world away, Philip Glass just because it's cool. I don't think classical music boosts anyone's intelligence. However, exposure to a vast array of music no doubt contributes to an individual's ability to appreciate music (whether its theoretical structure, or as a social event) and general well-roundedness.

(I might add that Seven Nation Army (The White Stripes) is the very best song ever to wash dishes by. Helena agrees.)

Quebec differs probably because it "is the only province in Canada that has made a commitment to early-childhood education, and not just to daycare. Every subsidized daycare in the province follows a formal, age-appropriate curriculum, even small, home-based ones."

There's a new and improved developmental roadmap to you child's brain in the works. I can appreciate the need to know your child is "normal," but frankly I don't see the worth of this project to parents, the majority of which are simply insecure.

Since human development is so individual, and all babies and children develop at their own rates, the researchers expect to find some variability in brain development. They want to define the range of development that is normal.

Meanwhile, other research suggests that children have critical windows of opportunity in which to develop certain skills.

[Dr Cynadar] is trying to pinpoint exactly what happens in the brain during critical windows; he wants to understand the architecture and find a biochemical signature that could easily be detected using modern brain-imaging techniques. Meanwhile, other researchers are charting which parts of the brain engage with math or with poetry, and which are used for getting jokes or irony. If they could combine that with the ability to measure when each bit of brain was at its most plastic, scientists might be able to tell if a child was better off studying, say, fractions or Spanish at any given time.

I'd like to think that their results won't affect my parenting in the least, that by "instinct" I will know what my child is ready for.

The most reassuring article in The Globe and Mail's series on early child development is telling parents to chill out.

"A child's mind is an amazing place," his mother says.

No scientist would disagree with that. But more and more researchers have begun to question the hyper, if earnest, attempts of parents to cram as much into those brains, early and fast, as they can.

Well, thank goodness. Now if they could say it a little louder. . .

Far from the flashcard flurry on the store shelves, modern research on the subject has gone retro, back to the days of crayons, reading under blanket forts and safaris in the backyard. The geneticist, studying how environment interacts with genes, recommends nurturing. The neuroscientist, examining the growth of brain-cell networks, advises playful new experiences. The language expert urges lots and lots of chatter. Meanwhile, new research is making some unexpected connections between social skills and academic success, between play and conversation and creative thinking.

All of which really translates into an endorsement for parents to rely on their instincts.

Instincts! Yay! I have those. So I don't need to feel guilty about being lazy for not reading parenting books, or about not worrying that Helena wasn't walking yet (The horror! All our parent friends told us not to worry about her not walking, which implied we should've been worrying. It turns out she was well within normal range. When she did start walking, within days she mastered what the developmental charts call the finer points of mobility.).

I can simply listen to the voice inside my head (so long as I block out the voices of all the crazy people I know).

Hear him for yourself

Can you believe there's more to say on the subject of Paul Auster? Only this time you can hear Paul Auster himself.

The Writers & Company broadcast on Sunday, April 11 featured Eleanor Wachtel's interview with Paul Auster conducted on stage during Blue Metropolis.

The audio file should be available throughout the week. I've not had the time to listen to it myself.

For those of you just tuning in, you may want to more fully explore what's measuring up to be my Paul Auster obsession:
Dedicated, in anticipation of the Paul Auster reading
Face to face, a recounting of the Paul Auster event
The oracle's ghosts, a review of Oracle Night

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Things that make you go "hmm"

I wasn't going to post anything on the subject of Easter, cuz that's really big and really insignificant at the same time, and my views on religion can be a little difficult for some people in that I'm not a believer yet I am fascinated, simply fascinated — awed — by everything believing entails, something with which both believers and nonbelievers alike have trouble. John Scalzi nicely sums up a lot of what I could say on the subject.

The oracle's ghosts

You might think I've been reading myself into a frenzy this last week or so. Time melted a little to accommodate me. Oracle Night, by Paul Auster, is all of 243 pages. I nibbled away at it over days, taking the time, taking walks even, to fully digest what I read.

The oracle of the title is Lemuel Flagg, a man blinded by a mortar explosion but left with the gift of prophecy. He is the main personage of a lost/found manuscript, said to be uncharacteristic of the author's usual work, given to Nick Bowen, the Flitcraft-inspired* protagonist of a story Sidney Orr starts writing in his new blue notebook.

The future and past, as well as all the presents of others around us, are already known within us, within objects and relationships, within our interactions with them. The trick is how to unlock them.

In every relationship there are ghosts. Not just the obvious memory-of-past-lovers kind of ghosts. Those too, but also the fragments we pick up in our individual lives and unconsiously carry with us into a relationship. All relationships. Not just lovers. Friends, family, colleagues, even the non-relationship with the stranger at the coffeeshop. Who himself becomes a ghost I carry home with me to J-F. The event of the coffeeshop, too, is a kind of ghost — a non-secret non-event that has imprinted itself on me.

I'm mad at Paul Auster for this. He writes about the ghosts. When not writing about the ghosts he's more sharply delineating a piece of character, emphasizing the space in which the ghosts move. He has made me aware of my own ghosts. I've always known them, but in reading Paul Auster these last weeks I feel compelled to face them. Confront my demons, so to speak. Face the past. Really look at the empty spaces between us, and know how full they are.

Writers write what they know, and Paul Auster knows about being a writer. Once again this is the profession of the main character. On one level, Auster's books are a puzzle of actual biographical detail. In City of Glass we meet a character, a writer, by the name of Paul Auster. In The Locked Room, the wife is Siri, as in real life. Characters who lived and worked in France. Writer characters who wrote screenplays to make ends meet. Characters who live in Brooklyn.

Sidney, Oracle Night's narrator, addresses how he creates the characters of his story. The woman was modelled on his own wife "down to her smallest, most idiosyncratic features."

As for Bowen, however, I expressly made him someone I was not, an inversion of myself. I am tall, and so I made him short. I have reddish hair, and so I gave him dark brown hair, I wear size eleven shoes, and so I put him in size eight and a half.

So not only do the books within his books blur into the main narrative, the whole of it blurs with real life. Here, the narrator does a few things I don't approve of, and for this reason I like Paul Auster as a person just a little bit less. (It's always bothered me that my mother likes actors based on the movie characters they play, failing to distinguish between the personality or morality they portray on screen and the able execution of their craft. Now I'm guilty too.) Of course, I know we are all of us complex creatures embodying good and evil and everything in between, facing complex situations that have no black and white resolutions. But for the moment, my god has fallen, just a little.

Paul Auster pulls off a really neat trick of prose: it's cold, analytical, removed, yet at the same time intensely personal and private. Consciousness is the filter that both diffuses and focuses the experience.

*In The Maltese Falcon, . . . Sam Spade, is a loner whose audacity and individualism are the product of a thoroughgoing distrust of conventional social arrangements and familiar pieties. Spade's cynical sense of the world is epitomised in the story he tells Brigid of the strange affair of Flitcraft, who abandons his perfectly ordinary family life after he has nearly been killed by a falling beam: this exposure to life's randomness leads Flitcraft to leave behind his orderly existence, and to drift off, until, when Spade eventually finds him, he has adjusted himself to beams not falling and is now leading more or less the same kind of life he did before, with an ordinary job and a suburban family – again the good citizen, husband and father. As the teller of the parable, Spade confirms his position as the one character in the novel who grasps the absurdity that lies under all ways of ordering the world and giving it value. He knows that life is not “a clean, orderly, responsible affair” and accepts that men do die “at haphazard”, and in his dealings with others he acts accordingly: “my way of learning is to heave a wild and unpredictable monkey-wrench into the machinery.”

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Look it up

Sometimes it's most effective to turn to the book perched in readiness at the corner of your desk.

The research skills of kids today, while vastly augmented through the sheer volume of information at their fingertips, are not so solid in their fundamentals. Part of the problem is attitude: if it's not online it's not worth knowing.

"Look it up," I told my 6-year-old.

"Where?" she asked.

"On the Internet," said my 15-year-old, who was on the couch sending instant messages to my 13-year-old, who was sitting next to her. "That's where you look up everything."

Suddenly I felt sad. The Internet is not where you look up everything. Dictionaries and thesauri and encyclopedias and books on modern usage are where you look up everything. How are you going to stumble upon an illustration of a prickly pear cactus or learn that it has yellow flowers, except by thumbing through a dictionary in search of "prom"?

I have raised three daughters who are reference-book-impaired. They look up everything online and as a result have a tenuous grasp of the finer points of alphabetical order. They are far too easy to beat at Scrabble.

The internet, believe it or not, is not the answer to everything, though it too has a certain kind of logic of order and, well, a web of interconnections that can lead to strange and wonderful journeys.

Still, a print edition of Google would come in handy.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Unqualified disaster or unmitigated catastrophe

The Great Ontario Book Break, an event last weekend in Toronto, didn't fare too well. Sad, but funny.

There was supposed to be a cocktail reception for the librarians at 5:30 p.m. — maybe they would show up for that. The authors and the publishers trooped into the bar area and gulped some of the cheese cubes and waited. It was immediately clear that we would have to drink all of the librarians' free booze ourselves. By 6:30 p.m., not one person I spoke to had seen a single librarian all day.

By contrast, Montreal's Blue Metropololis has been deemed a great success.

The Blue Met is a very Montreal event, with a different mandate than the country's other literary festivals. To begin with, at least half the invited writers are French-speaking. . . The Blue Met invites a wild range of literary expression, including cartoonists, rap poets and staged play readings.

Embargo on editing reconsidered

The decision of the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control "makes clear that scientific communities in sanctioned countries may publish their works in U.S. scholarly journals. This process is vital to promoting the free flow of information within the global community of scholarship."

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Boy or girl?

Oh no. It's finally happened:

Now you can pick the sex of your baby in the privacy of your own home. Or so the Internet sellers of sex-selection kits would have you believe.

The latest fad in babymaking offers guaranteed, worry-free gender selection for just $199 plus shipping. Some experts call it "snake oil."

It's The First Century After Beatrice. It may be snake oil, but snake oil too has its properties and special uses. What if there's something to this snake oil stuff?

The phenomenon first gained attention when some U.S. fertility clinics began offering gender selection for non-medical reasons through costly, often invasive medical procedures.

The technology exists and the people embrace it. Now for the charlatans to kill off the remaining shreds of dignity and soul that humanity may have.

When child-centred equals self-centred

The Atlantic Online previews letters on Caitlin Flanagan's "nanny problems."

—"The fact that Caitlin Flanagan has taken her children to eight birthday parties in a month is not, in my view, an example of 'the way that adult middle-class life has become so intensely, laughably child-centered.' The very subject of her piece belies this notion and makes it an absurd statement. If legions of women who can afford to raise their own children choose not to do so, and spend the majority of their hours away from their children, what about this is 'child-centered'?" (Elizabeth Weinstein, Tully, N.Y.)

Ya. What she said.

(The May Atlantic will be online April 13.)

Are you grammatically sound?

I am a grammar god.

If your mission in life is not already to preserve the English tongue, it should be.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

There's a war going on

Look what you've done, Mel. Don't you know there's a war going on?

In the Middle East, though, just a few miles from the scene of the crime, audiences are interpreting the movie much like the Denver preacher whose church sign declared, "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus." With its claims of historical truth, "The Passion," which portrays a weary Pontius Pilate coerced into brutality against Jesus by a vicious, fawning cabal of hook-nosed Jewish priests, is being taken as further evidence of the Jews' elemental cruelty.

"This is an injection of medieval anti-Semitism, and not only in the U.S.," AbuKhalil says of the film. "The judgment of this movie should not be confined to whether this is going to result in anti-Jewish manifestations around American movie theaters but, more importantly, whether this movie will inject classic medieval anti-Semitism into world public opinion."

Don't you know that religion is used to incite the masses?

Thanks at least in part to Gibson, the ancient calumny that Jews are Christ killers is gaining currency even among people who don't believe that Christ was killed.

The cruelest month

I'd been eager to get around to reporting that the mound of snow slush in our parking lot had just about vanished, when it started to snow. Brrr. Grrr.

It's fucking everywhere. Again. Damn snow.

I had to get out to the store yesterday. Again with the boots and the heavy winter coat. Again with the snuggly hat and the blankets, the weather shield for the stroller. Helena was none too pleased about the bundling either, but she's always excited to realize there's an excursion in store.

Helena is, in fact, the sweetest baby in the world. I say this with absolute objectivity.

Walking is now a viable mode of transportation. The excruciatingly slow chases around the living room are exceptionally funny. (Helena's not afraid to fall, and she does, but this is usually reserved for "controlled" practice walking sessions.) When walking to get places, she has to do it just right, stopping to correct her balance or fine-tune her direction. Slow, but steady.

Lego play has become more constructive than destructive.

She's getting to be a little . . . girly. This morning she found a string of beads in a box on a shelf in the bedroom. I own a few things like that, but I never wear them (no jewelry of any kind). But there's Helena, happy as a little girl, trying them on and admiring them, adjusting her "outfit," reveling in her adornments.

We watched Sesame Street this morning. I didn't know Cookie Monster had a mother. Cookie Mommy. Today's letter of the day is "B." B.B. King sings about it.

Friends from out of town visited the other day. We sat up late into the night, talking and drinking. (Needless to say, I'm still having trouble with adjusting to daylight saving time.)

We had Chinese take-out. My fortune: "Your success in life must be earned with earnest efforts." It's my habit to post the latest fortune on the fridge, not because I believe in fortunes, but because I get this feeling cracking open a cookie that I'm cracking open a bit of myself, the shell of my self; someone (me?) is trying to tell me something I need to be reminded of. This one is timely, as I'd spent the previous day griping that someone should simply write me a check for a million dollars on the basis that I obviously deserve it.

These friends like books. I literally live among stacks of books. Over the course of the evening, books were reached for, handled, perused. They would spark conversations. This seems natural to me. Homes that have no books, or even magazines, I find creepy. I dread the Trading Spaces crew coming into my home and replacing my Ikea shelving with decorative wall shelves, the kind that display objets and maybe three or four hardcovers, but just for show. You can't tell me my books are ugly and that they should be hidden from "society" (the neighbours we never invite over).

I finished rereading The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster, something I'd started doing in preparation for his reading last week. (The festival is reported to have been a success.) I wasn't going to, but now I am adding this to my tally of books read in 2004 (that makes 10), but only because it was if I were reading The Locked Room, the third part, for the first time.

I've read the other parts a number of times. But not this one. I remember liking it least of the three, so discarded it from my memory. It's more traditionally narrative, to its detriment, I thought.

It's not a question of books "holding up" over time, as the characters in Oracle Night discuss. It's a matter of context and the ability of the reader to apply meaning, to imbue the reading with significance.

To some degree, we can intuit what needs to be revisited, reexamined, but much of this — this exploration of self, this contribution to personal growth — must be left to chance. How do you know where any book will take you? Do you presume it will take you someplace different, better, the second time?

I have picked up reading Oracle Night where Paul Auster left off:

. . . he begins to see a connection between himself and the story in the novel, as if in some oblique, highly metaphorical way, the book were speaking intimately to him about his own present circumstances.

Vicious childhood

The Globe and Mail continues its series on early childhood development. Though I feel compelled to acknowledge that I read the articles and record my impressions here, I found the articles themselves to be not particularly compelling.

"Canada's dads are the best." Yay. Go, Canadian dads.

A study has found that preschoolers in Canada can count on an extra hour of undivided attention from their parents each day, compared with what their moms and dads received from their own parents 30 years ago.

To squeeze in the extra hour with their children, Canadian parents are giving up on sleep, TV viewing and tidy homes. The study found, for instance, that for mothers, the extra time with children was financed almost entirely by a decline in housework. Fathers partly compensated by doing 36 more minutes of household chores a day than they did in the past.

Maybe I'll start timing J-F. Oh, to sleep an extra half hour. . . I still watch a lot of TV. I'd have to say that parenthood primarily cuts into my drinking.

Another article explores the benefits of play-fighting.

Almost every social animal play-fights, from the puppy to the baby monkey, and young children do it spontaneously. From a purely evolutionary point of view, wrestling for fun builds physical strength and gives practice in protecting yourself should danger arise.

But it also fine-tunes social behaviour, teaching the participants how hard they can push and introducing them to compromise, . . . and reconciliation.

It comes as no surprise that "fathers are believed to be a key component; in home studies, they were found to engage more often in wrestling and tackling games than mothers."

I do play-fight with Helena. I see it as a last resort — when I'm at a loss for things to say and do, when no other activity engages her, when my mental energies are depleted. It usually evolves out of a harmless game of peek-a-boo.

"The most violent people on Earth" is rather unsettling, looking at an old philosophical question: Are we born evil? Human viciousness is at its peak in toddlers. So we don't learn aggression; we unlearn it.

Passive children don't grow up to be aggressive adults; "the raging adults were the raging children who never leashed their anger."

Complicated stuff, the brain. I'll let you read the article for yourself. So many factors play into the development of aggression and into the ability to control it.

I can appreciate that girls learn to be savvy and subversive with their aggression early on, the little bitches.

I'm a little weirded out by the thought of anger management classes in kindergarten. Not sure that's the answer.

But I'm also not sure how big a problem aggression is. It's natural. Play-fighting is good, but I guess that's channeled and controlled aggression. So how much aggression can safely go unchecked? Did it go unchecked in previous generations, or did it naturally resolve itself?

I'm astounded to read that science on some fronts is so slow to figure out the obvious:

In the past two decades, science has begun to unravel both the origins and social cost of shyness, and build a case for why parents and schools need to give the quiet kid in the corner the same attention they give the rabble-rouser in the sandbox.

And being extroverted is something that the individualistic North American society places a high value upon, especially for boys, who usually have the hardest time when they are shy. Cultural studies have revealed a striking difference, for instance, in the outcomes for shy children in China, where conformity is celebrated — they end up as leaders among their peers, and academic stars.

Maybe if somebody just asked the shy kid what was going on, science could pick up the pace. Or if the shy guy at the lab spoke up. . .

Then there's the old nature–nurture debate. No question that it's some complex combination that governs how we turns out. Now, "the question is how the environment physically alters genes to produce individual differences."

"They want to know how parental care affects genes in human babies" and if negative effects can be reversed.

Does any of this help me to be a better mother? Remember, Isabella: it's important to hold your baby. A little affection goes a long way.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Appendix A

Reasons to attend a reading

1. To be entertained. Go to a movie? Read a book? Be read to! I've always enjoyed being read to, even by people who are not authors.

2. To gawk at a celebrity. People flock to see movie stars, athletes, heads of state in various types of public appearances. If books are your thing, authors are celebrities too. Why it is that we've developed the cult of celebrity is worth its own appendix.

3. To pay homage. Honour an author whose work you admire and respect. Show him you care.

4. To gain a new dimension on a book. Hear it in the author's voice. Become privy to the nuances of his cadence, his breath, the subtleties that punctuation cannot convey. Even if the author gives no commentary, his voice carries comment on his intentions.

5. To receive wisdom, creative genius, charm, wealth, etc. — anything that might accidentally rub off or be osmotically imparted to us.

6. To be inspired. To steal the author's muse.

7. To meet God. The author is the creator of whole worlds we try to immerse ourselves in. We attempt to breach the barrier between reality and fiction. We cannot meet the characters we read about, but we can achieve a sense of communion with the one behind their philosophies and worldviews.

Face to face

Did I mention I was going to see Paul Auster?

The line-up
I arrive with Helena about an hour ahead of time. Already a line-up. I whisk through the temporary bookstore, buy Oracle Night, find my place at the end of the line. (The buzz has it that in interview Paul Auster revealed that the favourite of his works is In the Country of Last Things. I'll look it up another time.) J-F is to show up after work to take Helena off my hands.

What if he doesn't show up? J-F, that is. (I'm pretty sure Paul Auster's committed to making an appearance. Look, there he is in the bar.) I imagine having to keep Helena entertained for the next hour, lugging baby and baby paraphernalia through the bookstore, having my book signed by Paul Auster while perching Helena on my hip, trying to maintain some poise, exude a little charm even. Maybe he'll ask what she thinks of his work. "She likes the bit about Humpty Dumpty well enough. But she finds the story troublesome on the whole — still afraid that I might lock her up in the basement to conduct language experiments on her." Ha, ha. Helena's a good egg.

Paul Auster is with a small group of people seated in the lounge area alongside which we are lined up. (I don't think many people know who he is. I recognize him only because his appearance on Charlie Rose is still fresh in my memory.) A round of drinks. He's having a rum and Coke. Maybe it's just a Coke. Is that a cigarillo? He smokes two. He enjoys a drink and a smoke while we stand in line. I'd really like a drink and a smoke.

When J-F shows up, I dare him to approach the table and bum a cigarette. He doesn't fall for it.

J-F takes Helena home, and I have my books signed.

The signing
Perhaps it's for the best — my thunder was stolen. I quietly muttered "It came at the right time in my life." He looked at me and said, "Good."

Of course. I'd intended to spout much more inspired things. To tell him how it'd healed some wounds and focused some energy. How it made me study semantics.

I'd even thought of a joke, to break the ice. A couple artsy types, three or four people ahead of me in line, had brought along a biography of Paul Auster for Paul Auster to sign. The cover was a portrait of him, dark and moody — they wanted him to sign the cover, across the face. He looked a bit puzzled at first, but they handed him a "magic" marker, a specialized writing instrument suitable to the material at hand, and he obliged. They left him a small package — the bag was from L'Aromate, so maybe a small box of gourmet olives or toothpicks. Or maybe it was just a bag. So my joke: "I didn't know we were supposed to bring gifts."

Good thing I didn't say it. Three or four people later is far too late for punchline.

The woman directly in front of me has her two-and-a-half-year-old son with her. Juan Pablo Terrible. Say it: terrrreeblay. It's his mother's turn to have her book signed and Juan Pablo is reaching his limit. He picks up a book for sale from the pile on Paul Auster's table, turns around, and slams it to the floor. The mother has her photo taken with Paul Auster. She tells him it's her birthday tomorrow and gives him a big smackeroo on his right cheek, across the signing table. Juan Pablo makes a desperate grab for the table, pulling the cloth — three, four, more books go flying. Grab, grab. Adults smile indulgently. My thunder was stolen.

It's probably for the best. Surely I would've said something stupid otherwise. Better to say nothing at all. Or very little. What bothers me is that he signed my two books while distracted. The first one — he didn't even know for whom he was signing it. The whole energy of the signing and signature was dissipated.

The price of admission
I had a little trouble getting a ticket for the reading. By the time I got out to the ticket kiosk, the event was sold out. I was devastated. I resorted to begging:

I'm writing in an act of desperation.

I was absolutely devastated on arrival at the Pierre-Mercure kiosk earlier today to find that tickets for the 7:30 public reading by Paul Auster on April 1 were no longer available. Really devastated.

Please advise me if there is any other way of procuring tickets. A single ticket. No one has been able to tell me if more tickets will become available or if they will be available at the door (standing room?).

I've been a fan of Paul Auster for fifteen years — The New York Trilogy had a profound impact on me, affecting my course of education and even my career path.

To understand my desperation, know that I'm a stay-at-home mom (of a lovely 16-month girl) who very occasionally is able to take on freelance contracts (copy editing) to work from home (and work well into the night, when baby is sleeping). I don't get out much. Nor can I afford to get out much. Sometimes it seems that books are my only hold on sanity. Apart from the promise of hearing Paul Auster, the highlight of my week this week was locating the orange plastic letter "D" belonging to my daughter's shape-sorter, which had gone missing in action some days beforehand.

I assume the article in Saturday's Gazette has something to do with the popularity of the event. Shame on me for not finding time to get to the Pierre-Mercure kiosk before it was published.

I implore you, if any tickets are being held back for this event, please release one to me. Please, please, please.

(very, very much ashamed of how pathetic she must sound in this sorry excuse for a sob-story, but she's desperate)

A little embellished perhaps, but it captured spirit of my situation. I sent my electronic plea to the Blue Metropolis festival organizers and to the kind people at CBC Blue.

Festival organizers told me I was out of luck and suggested I attend one of the French events featuring Paul Auster. Alas, my French is not so strong.

A producer at CBC Blue advised me there would be a ticket held for me at the door.

Then she called me. Sarah was intrigued. What would drive a person to such lengths? You've read the book — what is there to gain from hearing the author read it? Why do people go to readings? Could she meet me to talk about it and get my impressions.

Why do people go to readings? Many reasons (see Appendix A). I've attended a few myself (see Appendix B).

In the last weeks I've thought about why I wanted to see Paul Auster. I've read some of his stuff. I like his work. I've established that City of Glass was indeed significant to me. But why did I need to see him?

Hundreds of people stood in line to have a book signed, to have a stranger scribble illegibly on the title page. I might be worth some money someday, given the right eBay product description write-up. But it can't be that they're all here just to make a few bucks. They're buying books to own them, to take them home to read them and put them on their shelves. They want the book personalized. They want the author's mark. The transfer of ink from the pen in his hand to the page in the book you hold must mean something. Ink, the writer's lifeblood. They want to feel that the author wrote that book for them.

I grabbed a garlic-drenched panini for supper (sorry, Sarah — what was I thinking?)
and tracked down Sarah for a chat. It was pleasant, if weird, what with a microphone under my nose and trying not to look at it. I hear myself sound self-conscious about saying things in as natural a manner as possible. I think I've thought too much about these quesions in recent days.

The reading
Who are these people sitting next to me with their phoney British accents. "Oh, what a lovely string of beads." "They're from Mallorca." "Remember when we saw Mavis Gallant?" "Who's that fellow writing for the New Yorker? You know who I mean." "Chomsky's gone a bit weird, hasn't he? He's a linguist, you know." "Isn't Susan Sontag's son supposed to be somewhere?"

They have not in fact read anything by Paul Auster. "Mmm, I think my book club did a short story or an essay of his once." "Look at this crowd, a little young." "He's kind of post-modern, isn't he?" Sarah should be asking them why they're here. Their tickets should've been confiscated.

A woman follows along with the reading in her newly purchased French translation.

Why am I here?

Paul Auster is introduced by a woman who insists he's a man who needs no introduction . . . we all know who he is. No shit.

He does not preface his reading selection with any back story. He does not tell us this part is exceptionally funny or representative of a minor character's attitude. He does not regale us with an anecdote about how the passage came into being. He starts reading at the beginning.

I was only thirty-four, but for all intents and purposes the illness had turned me into an old man —

That's me. I'm 34. I'm an old woman. There hasn't been an illness, but pregnancy, childbirth, motherhood have changed me into something I don't yet know.

I understand this character. What makes us turn south one day instead of the usual north? I too know the joy of a carefully selected new notebook, new pen. Hah, there's a comment I might make.

Paul Auster looks up to explain that the book has a lot of footnotes. Footnotes! I love footnotes.

Ah, the luxury of waking up when you're finished sleeping.

The purpose of the exercise was not to write anything specific so much as to prove to myself that I still had it in me to write — which meant that it didn't matter what I wrote, just so long as I wrote something. Anything would have served, any sentence would have been as valid as any other, but still, I didn't want to break in that notebook with something stupid . . .

He has a good reading voice. Solid. I'd listen to him read books he hadn't written. In fact, that's what it sounds like. He's distanced, removed. Not a pompous, fake poet voice, like this is a work of great profundity. Normal. Like what he has to tell, you should already know.

He's not afraid to philosophize in the narration. Moviemakers learn not to tell you their story, but to show you. Similarly, writers of novels are afraid to say too much — they demand a lot of their characters. That their dialogue and actions speak for the persons they are. They're afraid to directly tell us what they think, or what we should think about them or be reminded of.

Flitcraft! From The Maltese Falcon. "He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand." (That's what I'd hoped for Spalding Gray.)

Paul Auster uses words I like: "excursion," "raw," "beatific."

He stops on page 27. It's been about two minutes per page.

A book within a book within a book. People leaving their lives. Random objects marking new beginnings. Anything can happen.

I can't wait to see how it all turns out.

I feel reassured. Reassured that Paul Auster is the author of things significant to me. His voice reassures me that I understand it correctly, I'm getting it right. Anything can happen.

Thus ends Isabella's longest blog entry ever. I promise.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Imaginary reading

Pasha Malla got me thinking that I too should attend Alberto Manguel's reading this afternoon at Blue Metropolis. I was even going to write to him on the matter.

But it's raining and I can't muster the energy for another such excursion.

I'll pretend to go instead. Later I'll admire Alberto Manguel's invisible signature in my Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

French passion

French passion is world's away from Mel Gibson's Passion.

Contrary to popular opinion, the French are not sadistic voyeurs.

Salon directed me to the BBC's piece on how the film is doing in France:

Most French critics were unimpressed, however. Catholic newspaper La Croix said violence in the film's graphic depiction of Christ's last hours worked against its intended message.

"Sadism and voyeurism" were no substitutes for Christian teaching it said.

Newspaper Le Monde said the film's message was "part of the worst fundamentalist trends of the modern world" while the Communist l'Humanite judged the 127-minute movie "incredibly boring."

I have no stats or sources other than word-of-mouth, but I hear The Passion is a flop here in Quebec, as well.

Kind of puts the "French Catholic" in perspective.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Justice is so not blind, and in all the wrong places

We knew it wouldn't take long — the "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act" is in court.

Casey asked Johnson if doctors tell a woman that the abortion procedure they might use includes "sucking the brain out of the skull."

"I don't think we would use those terms," Johnson said. "I think we would probably use a term like 'decompression of the skull' or 'reducing the contents of the skull.'"

The judge responded, "Make it nice and palatable so that they wouldn't understand what it's all about?"

Get that man off that bench.

Meanwhile, Bush "decided on an elaborate ceremony to sign into law legislation expanding legal rights of the unborn," the Unborn Victims of Violence Act.


Responses to Salon's Disneyfication article are flowing in.

Some are sympathetic, many are critical, and with valid points: the conflation of "Disney" with abridgement, the personalized pop psychology interpretation of The Wind in the Willows (which did nothing to promote the argument), landing the responsibility for these literay perversions with corporate America rather than with parents, librarians, funding programs, etc.

But I still hate Disney.

Also, Salon has published one last letter regarding the Midlist Author's Lament, a very hot topic on the blog circuit of late. The original article spawned many angry letters, and then more letters, mostly accusing the author of whining and having unrealistic expectations from the publishing industry and the public. Poor anonymous woman has trouble getting huge advances on her books when they're not selling all that well, and is having some trouble living exclusively from the proceeds of her writing.

This last letter is from Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of the Oprah Book Club bestseller The Deep End of the Ocean. I never read it, never will. Mitchard misses the point about writing for money: while Mitchard continues to write journalism and lectures, Jane Austen Doe suggested such writing was beneath her. Salon readers felt Doe should get a day job, lest the purity of the literature she produces be sullied with talk of bottom lines.

Mitchard writes:

While it is in poor taste to bite the hand that (literally) feeds you, I know that Ms. Doe's woes often are experienced by other writers, and I sympathize.

She must mean "literally" figuratively here. I don't know what the point of her letter is, and I won't be reading her novels.


This morning, after J-F brought Helena to bed with us (as he usually does, so that we can all leisurely wake up together), and after a round of "Good morning, Helena," "Bonjour, ma Cocotte," "Dzien dobry, sloneczko," Helena said "Helena."

It was unmistakable (to our ears).