Friday, October 29, 2004


It doesn't take much to fall out of the practice of full-time mothering. I'm OK with the I-feel-crummy-and-I-just-want-to-hang-out-on-the-couch-in-my-jammies-and-watch-some-of-my-programs-and-maybe-read-a-book-or-two stuff, but the subsequent days of I-feel-almost-my-usual-self-but-not-quite-so-don't-even-think-of-sending-me-to-daycare-cuz-we've-got-some-serious-nonsense-to-catch-up-on stuff is exhausting. Phew.

We saw the pediatrician this morning jsut to make sure (my other insisted), but we have a clean enough bill of health to be travelling. We leave in the morning.

There's not much else to report.

Helena and I lazed about in bed for a bit after waking. She was looking for something to read on my bedside shelf, which happens to include some childhood favourites in addition to a couple books I expect to hold a toddler's interest. Although I advised her against it, she brings me each of the Narnia chronicles, one after the other, and settles in under the covers, anticipating a great story — I barely finish the first sentence, she takes the book from my hands saying, "Pas ça," and tries another. No, now is not the time.

I was impressed with how interested she was in Winnie-the-Pooh; after a couple sentences she went looking for her cloth edition (abridged).

A couple things I found at Bookninja and got excited over the other day:

1. Bookmarks! I love bookmarks! I have bunches! I even have this one!

2. Jasper Fforde in The Globe and Mail. Coinciding with fianlly getting my hands of The Well of Lost Plots, which I'm saving for my return. And also coinciding with the recent intrigue concerning Humpty Dumpty. The fifth in the Thursday Next series is "a police procedural focusing on the case of Humpty Dumpty's great fall":

"I thought this was terribly amusing, the idea that he is a real character," Fforde says. "I always treat my nonsense and the humour in my books straight — comedy is best served absolutely straight. That's what I liked about the Humpty Dumpty concept. He's an egg and he's fallen and is broken, we all know that from our childhoods, but I was asking more pertinent questions. Why did he fall, was it suicide, or murder? What's going on?"

Also, remind me to tell you about Bulat Okudzawa someday. (Rather, note to self: try to articulate the mass of feelings and reminiscences associated with the phenomenon of Bulat Okudzawa, not because anybody else would care, but because it could prove to be a good writing exercise as well as preserving a somewhat intangible aspect of family history.) Languor Management has made mention of him in days past and inspired me. Some people call him the Russian Bob Dylan — that may be accurate as far as political sentiment goes, but on the level of musicality and power of the poetry, I'd have to say he's more Leonard Cohen (and I say that to mean "far superior": he's not nasal and can carry a tune; you can understand what he's saying and it might even make your heart pine with some universal sentiment).

OK. I'm really going this time.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Poor babies, all

Hah! Fooled you, didn't I? You thought I was long gone...

The daycare called yesterday afternoon — Helena was running a fever of 103.5 and vomiting, would we come collect her?

Trip cancelled. Penalty incurred. Alternate plans not yet settled. But the laundry's dry.

I've never seen Helena looking so sickly. She vomited once more when she got home, but still demanded milk and juice. And a cookie. One bite was enough, though, to convince her it wasn't such a great idea.

Fever came and went all day. We caught her singing and colouring between naps.

Late evening was another matter. Fever came, but it wasn't going anywhere but up. When it crossed 105 we headed to the hospital.

After a 4-hour wait, the doctor confirmed that it's not an ear infection. He reassured J-F that it's not meningitis (a huge fear of his, I've learned). We went home.

Apparently, a fever of over 105 is nothing to worry about, even though more than one book advises us 103 is the threshold to watch for, and the provincial hotline during an earlier episode of illness told us to go to the hospital at 104. Lower fevers that persist 48 hours are cause for concern according to the same books and medication labels; the doctor tells us to wait 72 hours.

(Hospitals are unpleasant places. This was my first time at children's hospital: decidely more unpleasant.)

Helena is fevered, but "fine." She's spent the better part of the last 24 hours, including hospital waiting-room time, sitting on my lap or sleeping across my chest. My very own personal quasi-portable furnace.

I'm still worried for her, but not panicked.

We watched The Aristocats this morning. In a playful moment Helena thought it'd be funny and clever to change the words of her favourite song — "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" to "dog." It was funny and clever.

There's still the slight stench of vomit in her hair. We should be ready to tackle it properly shortly.

J-F meanwhile is writing an accounting exam this afternoon. Not fun on the best of days, less fun on only 4 hours sleep.

I'm faring pretty well through all this. I'd cleared my agenda of work, and we're packed and ready to go at a moment's notice. Not only is the forced cuddling of baby sleeping on chest in itself therapeutic, it prevents me from cleaning the kitchen and bathroom or picking up groceries. Looks like take-out tonight.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004


Waiting for laundry to dry. Why is it taking so long? And why am I so hungry?

Helena was up most of the night. Teething? Hungry? As anxious as I am about our pending travel adventure? Simply feeding off her mommy's anxiety?

Reports have it that she fell asleep on the way to daycare this morning. I have a bad feeling about the way our day is going to turn out.

Needless to say, mommy didn't get much sleep last night either. Now I'm sitting here, waiting for laundry to dry, thinking "What the hell did I think I had to do that there wouldn't be enough time for?" Granted, I have yet to finish packing, but first the laundry must dry.

Diaper bag is packed. There's a couple diapers in there, but there's also 2 books for Helena, 2 juice boxes, 2 muffins, 2 fruit cups, and 2 spoons. Jacob is nowhere in sight. And a toothbrush. Also one colouring book and one box of dollar-store, likely non-washable (yikes), crayons. And a change of clothes.

And some Anbesol, just in case. I was strongly against its use when Helena was younger, but the thought of the pain of molars seemed to warrant it. We've used it a couple times in the last couple weeks, and I'm fairly convinced it does nothing.

Plus a book for mommy.

The small suitcase so far contains only pyjamas and a turtleneck for me, a sweater and socks for Helena, some framed artwork, and a pair of glittery ladybug wings.

Looks like we're all set.

The printer refuses to print my ticket confirmation. I have no idea where Helena's birth certificate is and suspect they won't believe me when I tell them how old she is, and then they'll make me cough up a few thousand dollars or something.

Oh, right, I promised to pay some bills before I go.

Back in 12 days. Miss me.

The gentle madness of the bibliophile

It's not so hard to spend more on books than on food:

There are at least 700 books in my English department office. There are another 200 stashed in filing cabinets in the hallway. In my home office I estimate there are more than 2,000 on the shelves and another 300 in a pile on the floor. There are about 400 books on cooking and gardening in the kitchen. And, finally, there are about 50 books on a shelf next to my bed.

Is that all?

Monday, October 25, 2004

The anxiety you feel before a trip

I'm a basketcase!

There are a million things to do before this time tomorrow. Thankfully, work is no longer one of them, though there's still invoicing, which could reasonably be considered part of work, and there's laundry and plant-watering, which could reasonably be considered a different kind of work. And packing!

Helena and I are embarking on another journey by train to see my mother. It's a visit long overdue. J-F can't get away, so it'll be just us girls.

We've made this journey before, but Helena was a little smaller and quieter, not so sure on her feet. What am I in for this time?

To compound our adventure, I thought travelling overnight would make things easier. What was I thinking? What if she won't sleep? What if I can't get any sleep? How am I supposed to install her on the train without waking her? What happens at 5 in the morning when she wakes up, and she wakes up the whole train, and people yell at me? What if it's not possible to warm up some milk for the little crybaby? What if I can't get a cappuccino? How come I never have time to read on the train anymore?

If she is in fact sound asleep, I'll have to lug around her dead weight instead of her walking about on her own two feet and maybe even helping me carry a bag or two. Now I have to bring her pillow! (Trust me, if there's any hope of sleeping, I have to bring her pillow.)

What was I thinking?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Blah blah blah

Why do I feel so bored? Bored I tell you! And uninspired! Which makes this a very boring post indeed.

You really should go read something delightful. If you continue reading here you will only hear about the very odd little meditation of a novel I finally finished reading. And I may further regale you with the boring details of our baby-less weekend. And look forward to a fuller exploration of this intense feeling of boredom.

You've been warned.

Cosmopolis, by Don DeLillo. I'm very glad I read it, maybe especially because I have yet to finish a book of his.

(Please don't tell anyone. I don't understand it actually. They all start off great, but then... But then. Yet, I rave about Underworld — the first 100 pages of which are among the finest ever written. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the first two-fifths of that book, but for some reason, that's where I left off. I don't get.)

It took me more than 2 weeks to read this book in an insane number of 2- to 10-minute sittings (bus, bathroom, and occasionally just waiting). Ironic, since the novel recounts the details of a single 24-hour period in the life of a billionaire, most of the action happening in and around his limousine (with a few stops for food and sex) as it makes its way across town to get a haircut.

Not a lot of reviewers liked it much.

Only, the review in the Washington Post points out that "a 'haircut' also happens to be a slang term for a major financial loss."

That tidbit helps make clear how some people find it philosophical while others think it comic.

He was watching the second ticker begin to operate, words racing north to south.


. . . It was exhilarating, his head in the fumes to see the struggle and ruin around him, the gassed men and women in their defiance, waving looted Nasdaq T-shirts, and to realize they'd been reading the same poetry he'd been reading.

The line is from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert. (I really ought to brush up on the cultural legacy that is my heritage.)

Our hero does end up getting a haircut (well, half anyway), the barber (an old family friend) proclaiming, "I never seen such ratty hair on a human."

There's both a joke and a deep commentary in there somewhere.

The language is mostly wonderful:
He was hungry, he was half starved. There were days when he wanted to eat all the time, talk to people's faces, live in meat space.
(I thought that was pretty interesting.)

But I was intensely bothered by the use of the word "what" — the way you say "what" to fill in the blank at the end of a sentence, or in the middle of a sentence, while you grope for the words. It drove me what. Up the fucking wall.

For 24 hours in reality, a heck of a lot happens; for a novel, not a heck of a lot happens.

Social commentary? There is some. Biting? No. Keenly perceptive? Ya, maybe. Something about materialism. The thing is, this book is lingering with me, and someday, for some inexplicable reason, I will read it again — pretty high praise, coming from me.

My weekend? Thanks for asking. I worked. Helena stayed with her grandmother, so J-F and I went out for a pitcher of beer and rented a zombie movie.

Friday, October 22, 2004


A shipment arrived from Amazon yesterday. One book for me (mabye I'll tell you about it someday), and one book I ordered for a little soon-to-be-5-year-old girl I know: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a pop-up adaptation of Lewis Carroll's original tale by Robert Sabuda.

It is AMAZING. Magnificent. Awesome. Extraordinary. Fantastic.

The New York Times summarizes the composition of the book:

Sabuda's faithful adaptation of the original Carroll text is a pleasure to read. It appears on separate page flaps that are pasted on the side of each of the six spreads, adjacent to an exploding main tableau that rather than simply unfolding, literally flies off the page (watch out for your eyes).

While separate text flaps are common in movable books, Sabuda adds to these pages more than a dozen smaller cameo pop-ups that cleverly illustrate specific passages. On the first spread there is a smartly included accordion-folded tunnel-vision "theater," so when the reader pulls up and looks down, poor Alice is viewed haplessly falling down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit is fuzzy!

Helena is a little young for this. I've kept it well out of sight for fear of having to wrest it from her tiny, grubby little hands in a million pieces. The intended recipient, though older, is, I would have to say, a trifle more monster-like in her tendencies. However, it being a gift, should she derive pleasure from pouring real liquids at the tea party (or breaking up said party) or flinging the two packs of cards to the wind, so be it.

From an NPR story:

Pop-ups are among the last types of books still made individually by hand and the production process is painstaking. For one of the pages in the new book, Alice is caught in a whirlwind of playing cards — two full decks, 104 cards in all, accurate right down to the suits and royalty.

Sabuda says that as he strives to "make the paper obey," his goal is to create a book full of "wow" moments for his young readers. "Whatever it takes to bring kids back to books — and back to classical books — I want to be a part of that," he says.

Wow. Wow. WOW!

Off with her head. Posted by Hello

Robert Sabuda:
Interview (1999).
Interview (2003).
Article, with reviews of his books.

On a related matter, J-F's been asking me to explain Humpty Dumpty. We've discovered a little bit of history — apparently the image of Humpty Dumpty as an egg first appeared in Alice through the Looking Glass, but how a war-machine morphed into an anthropomorphic egg is still a mystery to me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A mouse in the house

I picked it out of the bargain bin for its delicate illustrations.

The Mouse of Amherst, by Elizabeth Spires, illustrated by Claire A. Nivala, is an odd little tale.

When I first read it, months ago now, I was not impressed. I thought it rather boring and somewhat patronizing in tone. More than anything I was mystified at who the audience for this book might be. Why on Earth would a 8-year-old want to read this? It was weird.

Rereading it today, I feel differently. Maybe it's the sinus medication affecting my judgement, or the germ of illness crying out for a gentle touch. Maybe it's a realization in the face of miles of crap lining the shelves of the bookstores, farting dogs and celebrity discharge.

This mouse is a really sweet mouse, trying to make her way in the world, to know her heart, privileged enough to find housing in the wainscoting of Emily Dickinson's bedroom.

I was never a fan of Emily Dickinson. Perhaps that explains my initial distaste for this tale. My own personal taste aside, this is a lovely introduction to the life and work of an "important" poet. Beyond this, it might inspire the young reader to awe at the power of the written word.

My hand trembled and my heart beat rapidly as I read what I had just written. Was it possible that I was a poet? I scarcely dared to believe it. And yet I had just written something that expressed my deepest feelings. From what secret place had my words come?

Neither is there shortage of adventurous incident in the daily life of this poet mouse: a cat, an outburst directed at an unkind visitor, an ill-timed nap in a basket of gingerbread, and a ratcatcher called by the business-like sister.

This book will stir romantic souls.

Emily's poem made me feel the vastness of the universe, and a lonely sailor's desire for both adventure and safe harbor.

This mouse's tale made me remember the vastness of poetry, and a young reader's longing for the stirring of unknown passions and the compassionate voice to articulate the workings of one's heart. What 8-year-old could resist?
I'm sick.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Bed bugs

Last night just past midnight, Helena woke up crying. It wasn't typical crying — not the cries of pain, sobs of loneliness or hunger. These were shrieks. Of terror.

We found her alert, on her knees, in one corner of her crib while pointing at the other. "Da bug, da bug, da bug." The bug. While I held her, I asked her about the bug, and she traced a path across her mattress and pillow and up the wall.

No bug.

I held her while she watched, her body stiff and trembling with panic, as J-F threw back the bed covers, checked under the book, behind the bear, shook out her blankets and pillow.

No bug, but a pretty high fever.

We took her back to our bed where she was still asking us for clarification: "Da bug est parti?" (The bug is gone?)

She settled down soon enough but her eyes were wide open. Minutes go by. Then the scratching begins.

No, that has nothing to do with bugs actually. It's just that she's always had dry shins and ankles, and it itches, so she scratches.

So I applied cream, and she settled down, her eyes wide open, and many minutes later she's scratching again.

After about an hour of this annoying, but remarkably quiet, cycle, I took her off to the living room, where we curled up on the sofa and finally dozed off watching The Aristocats for the gazillionth time.

Poor baby. This, after a weekend of intense teething anguish of the back molars. At least this time 'round she has the language to be able to tell us what's going on. More or less. True, she's not always the most credible of sources (every day I ask her what she did at daycare, "did you play in traffic today?" — "Oui!" But then, who really knows what they do there all day...), but I tend to believe her, what with the red cheeks, the excessive drooling, the guiding of my finger into her mouth and chomping down hard.

J-F is sick with a cold, and I'm still crippled by the weight of work deadlines.

Yet, we had some productive shopping this weekend: running shoes Helena can't take off (yet), a skirt and sweater set, a new doll (not the prettiest of the bunch but the one at the shop Helena wouldn't be parted from, and at least it's not creepy like that other doll Helena's been lavishing atention on), and this lovely hat.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Friday, October 15, 2004

But is it art?

Helena brought this gem home from daycare yesterday:

Fun with scissors. Posted by Hello

Apparently she was really concentrated on this task. She obviously had a vision (pile of blocks) she was trying to define (cut out with scissors).

I didn't see the work of her peers, but I'm told Helena executed the task beyond educators' expectations. How she came to be adept with scissors I do not know. Honest.

She can be slow, meticulous with these kinds of projects (with anything, really — language, for instance), but only so she can get it just right.

It seems I gave birth to a perfectionist. Go figure. Certain hell lies ahead.

Compelling evidence that there is indeed a toddler living in the house:

Naptime for everybody. Posted by Hello

The little comedian's big kick this week: fake snoring. She pretends it's naptime, worming her way through the pillows on my bed, wriggling her body down under the covers, and closes her eyes and snores. Then she opens her eyes to see if I'm watching and breaks into a grin.

Every day when she comes home from daycare, Helena fixes tea for the cats. I'm not sure they like the spoonfeeding so much, but they seem to appreciate the gesture, even if it is only imaginary cream served in tacky purple plastic cups.

Gibson blogging for America

About a month ago, William Gibson intended to stop blogging:
I’ve found blogging to be a low-impact activity, mildly narcotic and mostly quite convivial, but the thing I’ve most enjoyed about it is how it never fails to underline the fact that if I’m doing this I’m definitely not writing a novel.

But this week, he's back, with a decidedly political edge:
Because, as the Spanish philospher Unamuno said, "At times, to be silent is to lie."

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Business books for brainy babies

With a focus on management skills:

Who Moved My String Cheese? Sippy cup: check. A-list binky: check. Goldfish crackers: check. But what's this? Your Arthur marathon has been bumped by a PBS pledge drive? Not to worry. With Zen-like focus, you adjust your Pull-Up and slowly count to one. In your corner of the playpen, it's all about overcoming adversity.

Not June Cleaver

In case you missed 60 Minutes last Sunday...

The trend for moms to stay home:
Could it really be that this generation of women, the first to achieve success without having to fight for it, is now walking away, willingly, and without regrets?

Why it matters:
"These are the women that would have gone into the jobs that run our world. These were the women who would eventually have become senators, governors. These women would have been in the pipeline to be CEOs of Fortune 500 companies," says Hirshman.

None of this is news. I've come across many similar articles and books over the last year in my exploration of stay-at-home-cum-work-at-home mommyhood.

At 60 Minutes, however, they begin to ask questions of employers:
"The right question is, how do we change to keep this talent active and involved with us?"

For some reason the segment made me all weepy. I'm not quite one of those moms, but part of me wishes I were, and another part wonders why I'm not, and another part wonders why I think any of this is a big deal.

It's been a tough week. J-F was on strike a few days, so after a morning's picketing he'd pick up Helena from daycare, and both would come home, bursting in on my workday. Another deadline is looming.

More weepiness this morning was inspired by Literary Mama, which this month revolves around the theme of desiring motherhood.

One mother struggles for identity in the suburbs (and does not revolve around desiring motherhood), and it's just painfully sad.

Another (who blogs here) grapples with miscarriage. Oddly, though I've never had a miscarriage, there's something rather metaphorical about "misconceptions" that I feel I can relate to.

She writes:
I felt like the pain was deliberate, a message, someone tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, "It's time for me to be born."

Perhaps I'm a fatalist after all. I don't know where to start in conveying my sense that Helena was meant to be. That I was meant to find my own path in this way so that later I can guide her.

Yet another (who blogs here) examines the recent spate of celebrity moms, and our (new moms? moms of a certain age or socioeconomic background?) obsession with them. Oddly, though it's the most light-hearted of these stories, it's in some ways the angriest, the scariest, the most confusing, the most real.

But I also want to warn her that she can never go backwards on the path — to the person she was before. And that is scary. I want to warn her that there are dark days ahead, mixed in along with the light. And that is frustrating. I want her to know that life can be a balancing act when you are suddenly responsible for someone else's needs that are at times greater than your own. And that is overwhelming, confusing, and complicated.

This morning I also read an article (via Maud Newton) about "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," which made me want to be a good consumer and go buy some.

Chick Lit. . . tosses the role-modeling of ideal women straight out the window. Instead, the subject becomes the mundane workaday world, the world in which we care about our stupid bosses, self-absorbed boyfriends, still fitting into that pair of jeans, and whether we have a prayer in hell of having the kinds of magazine-cover lives we keep being told we can have if only we can manage to get it all right.

Michele, meanwhile, opines about choosing not to have children.

This also makes me weepy, because that used to be me.

I have never chosen. And in this passivity, perhaps I am more June Cleaver than I care to admit, than any of my contemporaries.

When I left home for university, it was to a school and in a city I did not choose; this choice was governed by my mother. I did not choose my major so much as it naturally evolved around my whims and preferences. I did not choose most of my boyfriends; they chose me. The same is true of my girlfriends for that matter. I did not choose my career; jobs, some decent, some not, came and went — I fell into my profession and it fit well. I have not even chosen my vacations; I would asked my travel agent where I could go for this much money, and I went.

I did not choose to start a family, and there was none of the associated planning of schedules and finances; it just kind of happened.

And all of this makes me feel a little weepy.

Perhaps I need to choose something.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Stem cells

Embryonic stem cells were first isolated in November 1998.

Immediately therafter: Bill Clinton requested a review of the issues surrounding stem cell research by the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC).

September 1999: NBAC releases its report, concluding that the federal government should fund research on human embyronic stem cells.

December 1999: National Institutes of Health (NIH) releases draft guidelines allowing federally funded research on embryonic stem cells derived in the private sector, and providing for stringent oversight of such research.

August 2000: NIH releases final guidelines and with the backing of President Bill Clinton, solicited applications for its first embryonic research cell research grants.

(Source: Science and Technology in Congress (STC), published by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).)

So the next time George W Bush boasts that he is the only president ever to approve funding for embryonic stem cell research, feel free to throw something at him (or your television).

John Kerry referenced Christopher Reeve in last Friday's debate. Of course, if he does so this evening, it may resonate a little more deeply.

A vote for Bush is a vote for kryptonite.

Writers read

Colm Tóibín reads in Montreal, brought to you by Concordia University.

Friday, 15 October 2004, 7:30 pm
de Sève Cinema, 1400 de Maisonneuve Boulevard West

Part of Writers Read at Concordia 2004–2005.

I plan on sneaking away from J-F and Helena (something I do not nearly often enough) in order to attend. Wish me luck that I can make it happen.

I've not read anything by Tóibín, but I've read good things about him. What better way to find out if he has anything interesting to say.

If anyone knows of a good source for listings of literary events in Montreal, please let me know. I tend to stumble across events by chance, which is a method that, on the whole, works out fine for me, but sometimes I think I might be missing something — not only am I kept "housebound" by baby and by work, but the city is conspiring against me to keep me from knowing about its cool goings on because I'm not good enough for it.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Me and U.S. politics

Writers in general are overwhelmingly Democrat.

It comes as no surprise that Orson Scott Card is voting for Bush. John Updike is articulate in his support for Kerry, and Jonathan Franzen thinks Teresa Heinz Kerry is hot.

What does come as a big surprise to me is the explanation of Dred Scott as referenced by Bush in last week's debate.

(Watching the debate, I even started jumping up and down and pointing at "who would you appoint to the supreme court" cuz I'd been thinking that's exactly the question I would've asked.)

Read about sacrificial lambs.
"Thirty states are poised to make abortion illegal within a year."

Vote Kerry.

Scifi — good for business

Stepping forward
According to BusinessWeek, "we're living in a science fiction world," but there are still some very smart reasons to explore the genre — "otherworldly fantasies can evoke solutions to real problems":

To mine not-yet-practical ideas.

To learn the lexicon of the future: Robot. Cyberpunk. Medichines and ansibles?

To explore social consequences.

To inspire young minds:
In a world where science and engineering can begin to tackle almost as many challenges as the mind can imagine, we need science fiction to bridge the gaps, bedazzle us, and make the future real.

The article's worth a look if only for the specific examples and reading suggestions.

(Link via SFSignal.)

See also:, where science meets fiction, exploring 650 inventions and ideas from writers.
The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

Looking back
I'll be hunting down The World as It Shall Be, a historical curiosity, by Emile Souvestre, reviewed in passing this weekend.

Through a series of biting vignettes, accompanied by his own illustrations, Souvestre (1806-54) scores points against the naive utopians of his own day by recounting the follies of the self-absorbed citizens of the Republic of United Interests in the year 3000.


Funny face. Posted by Hello

I'm a little sad that we didn't celebrate Thanksgiving. No turkey, no stuffing. No quiet moment to consider our blessings (though these days I find myself doing that every few days, if not hours, anyway). No nothing. Except for take-out chicken dinner, but that was after Helena had gone to bed, and it was a treat more in the sense of no cooking time! no dishes! than a feasting celebration of the cornucopia of spiritual realizations and opportunities as well as the material goods that are our life.

Maybe next week, after my deadlines are met, I'll find a turkey on sale and I'll be inspired to season it lovingly, baste it with our wisdom of the true meaning of Thanksgiving. For Helena's sake.

I don't think she'll look back on her childhood and rue the Thanksgiving weekend that went unnoticed when she was not yet 2 years old. But I'm finding a new appreciation for maintaining these kinds of traditions.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Me and economics

The last in this year's series of Nobel Prizes, Economics, has been awarded to Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott, two more guys I've never heard of.

The Laureates showed how such effects of expectations about future economic policy can give rise to a time consistency problem. If economic policymakers lack the ability to commit in advance to a specific decision rule, they will often not implement the most desirable policy later on.

Now, I know they don't mean me, and they're referring to central banks, but I enjoy hearing the pros tell me if you set a spending plan and a budget, you should stick to it.

I realize they're not being prescriptive, just describing why things go wrong. But I like the implications: Do not waiver. Be strong. Stick to your guns. Ignore the little blips, and all your financial worries will eventually resolve themselves.

From Michele.

Giving thanks

I really should be sleeping right now, or working, but I'm in serious blog withdrawal, mostly with the sense of sadness that all those clever things I thought to write over the last few days have lost their urgency (and, in some cases, their cleverness) and are soon to be forgotten, without ever having been read by you, dear Reader.

I'm grumpy and tired.

Yesterday opened up a floodgate of feelings of incompetence in the motherhood department, mostly because I have no idea where in this town (or any other, for that matter) to get my baby a decent haircut, sensible shoes, and a spiffy autumn hat. As if somehow I should've been imbued with this privileged sociogeographical knowledge along with some of those other weird mommy instincts that may or may not have some some basis in biology. It's all about survival of the fittest, but the fittest, it seems, are not about the shoes and the hats.

The mommy-failure syndrome was offset slightly this morning: effortlessly and not yet caffeinated I made muffins for breakfast! Of course they were of the instamix just-add-water variety, but Helena didn't know that, and she loved them (and me by extension).

It's a little confusing that Helena pronounces "muffins" in very much the same way as she does "mouse." We are slowly getting the hang of this language-communication problem. Context really is everything. We did not have mouse for breakfast, nor are there any muffins in Fantasia (a recent discovery of Helena's. Yes, I know it's Disney. Just shoot me already.).

We have verifiable counting! One, doo, fwee (but sometimes twa — that's "trois" — she's bilingual, don't you know), fo, and then we fall off track a little and skip to six, though I wonder if it might not be "cinq," and on to eight and nine. She's taken to "counting" spontaneously, usually to accompany stair-climbing.

Helena is fascinated with the diapering process, trying to practice it on herself and any poor toy she sets her eyes on. Today it was creepy-doll stretched out on the change table. Helena got her hands on the handiwipes, pulled a few out of the box, thoroughly wiped creepy-doll, and made a big show of disposing of the wipes in the waste basket before blanketing her doll with the cloth diapers I still keep around.

(It's been almost a year since creepy-doll came to stay. I can't get over how creepy this doll is, in a very Gorey way.)

I should tell you about The Most Incredibly Brilliant Blog in the World. It's a little lacking in brilliance, and it's not updated nearly as often as one would like, but there you have it.

About a week ago, I played sick for an evening (I even lost my voice for a few hours); I wrapped up in blankets and read in bed. The Grim Grotto, the eleventh in a series of unfortunate events as chronicled by Lemony Snicket.

Maybe cuz I was sick, maybe I'm simply tiring of Count Olaf's antics and the "cleverness" of those Baudelaire orphans, maybe I've lost my sense of wonder at the world. It just didn't grip me. Not the way the previous book showed real character development and plot-thickening.

Still, it was a veritable fungal delicacy, made all the more appetizing after the fact. Coincidentally, a few days ago I was editing a chapter on fungal infections. Spores in the lungs. This greatly enhanced my appreciation of The Grim Grotto, not for the supplemental knowledge per se, but for a fuller understanding of the grimness, a deeper immersion into the story's ambiance.

For the record, there is somewhere in the world, someone striving for peace.

J-F's been taking Helena to the park weekend mornings, so I can try to get some work done. I miss the park.

Weekday mornings when we're getting her dressed she starts talking about going to the park and feeding the ducks, and this makes me feel incredibly guilty, as if I'm depriving her of one the basic joys of toddlerhood and instead cruelly shipping her off to a heartless government institution for the day.

But most days of late, when J-F brings her to bed in the morning — Helena has her bottle and we try to wake up and there's always a cat or two hanging about and I genuinely feel that I'm surrounded by love — so much of it — where did it come from? — it makes me want to cry.

Double double

The first chapter of Saramago's The Double is available online.

The book is reviewed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Although they acknowledge how ambitious this novel is, it is also flawed — wordy and perhaps a little soulless.

I'm a big fan of Saramago and expect to find this novel under my Christmas tree (there's just too much else on my plate between now and then). I'm sure I'll love it, not least because I don't see the mathematization of characters as a weakness, but I'll let you know for sure in a couple months.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Nobel literature

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature was not awarded to Doris Lessing, dammit.

But it did go to a woman: Elfriede Jelinek

"for her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power".

The press release is rather minimalist, but perhaps the reasoning behind the choice will be fleshed out later in the day.

Can I tell you a secret? I've never heard of Elfriede Jelinek.

Featured on the Nobel Web site today is a really interesting article on the history of and criteria for awarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The primary concern above all: how is one to interpret Nobel's will? — that the prize go to the person who, in the literary field, had produced "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction," and the candidate should have bestowed "the greatest benefit on mankind."

Allén concluded that Nobel actually meant "in a direction towards an ideal", and specified the sphere of the ideal by the general criterion for all the Nobel Prizes: they are addressed to those who "shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". "This means, for instance", Allén added, "that writings, however brilliant, that advocate, say, genocide, will not comply with the will."

Interpretations and policies have demarcated distinct eras of categories of prize-winners:
- A Lofty and Sound Idealism (1901-12)
- A Policy of Neutrality (World War I)
- The Great Style (the 1920s), exhibiting classicism and "wide-hearted humanity"
- Universal Interest (the 1930s)
- The Pioneers (1946- ), providing "world literature with new possibilities in outlook and language"
- Attention to Unknown Masters (1978- )
- The Literature of the Whole World (1986- )

The article also discusses criticisms regarding the politization of the prize (including in the selection of "neglected" languages or countries), but concludes that The Nobel is evolving into an award that is truly literary.

The Academy cannot have the ambition to crown all worthy writers. What it cannot afford is giving Nobel's laurel to a minor talent.

Maybe next year, Doris.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Nobel week continues

Chemistry, "for the discovery of ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation":

Aaron Ciechanover, Avram Hershko and Irwin Rose have brought us to realise that the cell functions as a highly-efficient checking station where proteins are built up and broken down at a furious rate. The degradation is not indiscriminate but takes place through a process that is controlled in detail so that the proteins to be broken down at any given moment are given a molecular label, a ‘kiss of death', to be dramatic. The labelled proteins are then fed into the cells' "waste disposers", the so called proteasomes, where they are chopped into small pieces and destroyed.

Picture the poor cells, accompanied by the mysterious, dark-clad, perhaps hooded Ubiquitin (he's everywhere!) down a long hallway to meet their fates. No words are exchanged, just a tap on the shoulder, a "kiss" of acknowledgement. The proteasomes stormtroopers await.

Dramatic indeed! There's a movie in this somewhere.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Yoko meshi

From Simon Winchester's foreword to Christopher Moore's In Other Words:

People who are not us — or foreigners, which of course includes us in their eyes too — speak, write, and do things that are alien, mysterious, and impossibly difficult to translate, but which, when explained, often make an awful lot of sense.

And further: The moment you understand the words and phrases and the wonderfully sensible concepts that they frequently encapsulate, you have come some small way toward understanding the people who employ them.

However inclusive English may well be, speakers in the outside world can always show us how much more subtly so their languages can manage to be.

A selection of words in other words is also available at Words without Borders.

Toward a theory of everything

The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to David J. Gross, H. David Politzer, and Frank Wilczek (never heard of them) "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction."

"Physicists can at last explain why quarks only behave as free particles at extremely high energies."

That's what I thought.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Proust would be proud

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2004 has been awarded jointly to Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck for their discoveries of "odorant receptors and the organization of the olfactory system."

Axel and Buck discovered a large gene family of "odorant receptors" helping to understand how humans "can consciously experience the smell of a lilac flower in the spring and recall this olfactory memory at other times."

A good wine or a sunripe wild strawberry activates a whole array of odorant receptors, helping us to perceive the different odorant molecules.

A unique odour can trigger distinct memories from our childhood or from emotional moments — positive or negative — later in life.

Atwood is a moving target

I went to the trouble of registering for a free trial of the special-edition subsbscribers-only Globe and Mail. Please, please, please remind to cancel before they bill me an arm and a leg! The price is outrageous! And for what?! I'm outraged! The last decent Canadian news source! And now this!

Why did I go to this trouble you ask? I heard tell of some piece on the overpraised prescience of Margaret Atwood, accusations that her reputation was unfounded. So I had to read it for myself.

Last week, Margaret Wente acknowledged the uncanny similarities of life as depicted in The Handmaid's Tale to the plight of women in, for example, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

But that is not what Ms Atwood and her fans have in mind. To them, The Handmaid's Tale was prescient because it predicted — life in the United States! Yes, people. They are not referring to life under the Taliban, or life under the theocrats in Riyadh and Tehran. They're referring to life under George W. Bush! After all, they point out, the Christian fundamentalists are now in charge of the United States, and human rights have been ground into the dust. Presumably, we'll soon be bundled up in burkas, if Dubya has his way. Among the artistic classes of Canada and Europe, this version of America as dystopia is simply accepted as a fact.

How is it possible to confuse the oppression endured by the walking shrouds of Jeddah with the oppression endured by the soccer moms of New Jersey? Beats me. When last I checked, women in America were robust participants in public life, had freedoms unparalleled in human history, and could even go out wearing anything they pleased except for fur. The only rivets in their lips were the ones they put there themselves. You might have some very serious quarrels with the Bush regime, but it's no Taliban. Actually, they're the folks who overthrew the Taliban. Or am I missing something?

You are missing something.

Dystopias are generally written as warnings, not as certainties of our future. It's fiction. We grant it creative licence.

"Ms Atwood has built a phenomenally successful literary career on her creepily paranoid view of Western civilization and its prospects." Umm, no. She built a phenomenally successful literary career on her talent for portraying women with insight and humour, even if their social constructs were viewed a little cynically. Paranoia? Two dystopias. After having established herself as a literary figure.

"Ms Atwood is routinely compared with George Orwell, whose 1984 is perhaps the most chilling version of the future ever written. This is an awful slur on Orwell, who knew who the real totalitarians were, and depicted the psychological truth of a totalitarian state with a chilling realism Ms. Atwood cannot even hint at." Meanwhile, Wente believes we are in a place to fully dismiss The Handmaid's Tale because it was set in 2005. Atwood is a false prophet because life hasn't turned out as she predicted by an arbitrary date. How, I wonder, does Wente recollect 1984 London: was it a year of totalitarianism and misinformation under Thatcher, precisely as Orwell had envisioned 36 years earlier? Does Wente think it came to pass in reality, or does she acknowledge that it is in some ways metaphorical, an extrapolation to the extreme from grains of truth?

What Wente's missing is that the seeds are still there, in the United States of 2004, and if anything they have taken root since The Handmaid's Tale's writing. (Orwell's vision of propaganda has never been truer than in post-9/11 USA.)

A couple letters to the editor set Wente straight, recalling the anti-abortion movement in the United States and defeat of the equal rights amendment, the joining of church and state, the religious right's views on abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research

Another letter diputes the claim that it is only the United States Atwood had in mind while writing the book.

One reader notes, "As she sometimes does, Ms. Wente conflates the United States with the whole world, then assaults The Handmaid's Tale as an anti-American rant. . . The novel may be set in part of the present U.S., but it was clear to me when I first read it . . . that while for most North Americans it might represent futurist dystopian fiction, for many women elsewhere on the planet it came horribly close to reality."

One English professor (!) wrote "My overall complaint with everything I've ever read by Margaret Atwood is that she writes of worlds completely lacking in joy. To me, that tone must somehow reflect the writer herself." Thank god I was never in one of your classes! (Imagine, a course full of books by writers who weren't alcoholics or suffering from depression! What? no happy endings?)

A couple other letters praise Wente for her insight, reassured that it's OK to be Canadian (though Wente has never given up her allegiance to the United States) and not to like Margaret Atwood. The rest of us Canadians lack critical objectivity, because we're OK with her genre-switiching and evolution as a writer.

This weekend in The Globe and Mail, J.S. Porter favourably reviewed Atwood's newly published collection of essays:

In Moving Targets, there seems to be a shift in sensibility that permits non-fiction work to be just as moving (emotional) and as elusively in motion as fictional creation. Words hit their targets or miss them. One writes with the urgency of the Ancient Mariner whatever the nature of the telling.

The review also does something to dispel some of Wente's "argument":

Atwood seems less inclined to judge genres as being superior or inferior, and more inclined now to abide by Northrop Frye's principle that creativity resides in the linguistic execution within a genre rather than in the genre itself. What matters is the performance on the page. And sometimes the frankness of non-fiction (that the hooded female figures in The Handmaid's Tale, for example, were partly inspired by nuns and partly by Atwood's purchase of a chador in Afghanistan) equals the charm of fiction's tantalizing obliquity.

Moving Targets is "alive and kicking."

The unexpected delight of this surprise box for me is the power and cogency of Atwood's political thought. Of her many disguises, political thinker is one that gets too little media attention.

Didn't you know about the political insight? That's why she's good at writing dystopias.

On my mind

Lassoing the moon

Every morning last week, venturing through the living room to the kitchen for breakfast, Helena would stop to point out the window and exclaim, "Moon!"

The moon was big in the morning sky, bloated and full-ish.

I didn't think anything of it at first, but now I think it's weird.

"Moon." Though J-F is a stargazer and the heavens leave me in awe, we don't as a practice keep the little one up after dark to trace constellations or track cosmic phenomena. We have never taught her "moon" by correlating the word to the real thing.

"Moon" is not a common word in our basic vocabulary books. It is featured in one alphabet book: even though its purpose clearly is to demonstrate the use of the letter "M," Helena disregards this principal and has, until this week, been calling the picture "ball."

The other book features a protagonist who mistakes the moon for a bowl of milk, which in no way helps Helena with the correct labeling of the object. Ball, balloon, maybe bowl, and occasionally circle.

But all the while, evidently, she has been learning the word "moon."

So, Helena has set some process of abstraction into operation.

In another of Helena's books, a crescent moon is depicted in the background. Does she know it's the same thing. Metaphysically, is Wednesday's moon the same as Friday's? Or does each day provide a new one?

What are her constants?

Being the world

When is it that our mothers stop being the world in our eyes?

Our relationship has changed significantly, Helena's and mine. In some ways, the changes over the last month (daycare, drinking milk from a glass) or so, though subtler, are more significant than earlier developments (stopping breastfeeding, walking) marked by physical milestones and tangible circumstances in our material world.

Changes that occur now are imbued with Helena's conscience and cognition.

She still thinks I'm cool, but I have sent her out into the world for better and for worse.

I know love for one's mother is deep and complicated — not always unconditional, but forgiving and pervasive. I don't know any adults who love their mothers completely and adoringly.

I don't remember ever idealizing my mother. Did I lose faith so young? I do remember learning many times over to respect and appreciate her again and more deeply.

Do we fault them for abandoning us in the world? For thinking of us as unlimited potential while we go about discovering our limitations?

Is it an inevitable process, perhaps a biological function of survival in the world outside the uterus, beginning at birth?


Playing with Lego the other day, my running commentary conceded Helena's point that "sometimes you're better off scrapping everything and starting from scratch."

At the time I said it, I meant it. Yet it runs contrary to my editor's credo: work with (and rework) what you've been given. Find the beauty, the truth within.

Are they compatible and complementary principles? Which is the real me: Lego-me or work-me? Can I really be both?

Friday, October 01, 2004

Ah, the stuff of childhood

Really boring books for children:

It could've been based on our real-life adventures! "Mom Folds the Towels and Then Puts Them Away." (Only I would've left them in the laundry basket, maybe half of them folded, until there were no clean ones left in the cupboard.)

(Via Bookslut.)

On impulse

The other day, I made an impulse purchase. I used to make impulse purchases all the time. Years ago some inner sense went horribly awry, just for a week or so (must've been the flu) — the impulses were all wrong, and the purchases were all returned. I learned to stave of the impulse and eventually fell out of the habit. These days I find myself wanting to have the impulse, and I never do.

I went looking for it, because I just wanted to see it, even though I'd already noted to a certain someone that it would make the perfect birthday gift for me. But my birthday seems dreadfully far away, and if it were no longer available, I'd be devastated. I saw it, and had to have it. Now. So I bought it.

The Clash: London Calling, Legacy Edition.

Can you believe — 25 effing years?!

I actually had trouble locating the CD in the store. Even after all these years, The Clash has not migrated to the rock/pop section of the music store, at least not at this outlet. I purchased a CD filed under "punk," and being the age that I am, this gave me a certain thrill, though I did pause and wonder to myself, "Is punk dead? Did it die of old age? Is this the section for 30-something moms-desperately-clinging-to-shreds-of-youth with babies in strollers? How come there's no other cool babies out shopping with their cool moms at this hour?"

Yesterday, I was feeling sorry for myself for the following reasons:
-My cold is lingering. Every morning my head is heavy with mucous.
-I was losing a day's work because I had to hang out with Helena, the office building in which her daycare is located being blocked due to strike action.
-I still didn't have a chance to hear The Vanilla Tapes, cuz Helena just wasn't into it. She wanted to listen to her baby music.
-I have neither time nor inclination to read for pleasure. The Grim Grotto (not an impulse — a deliberate and methodically plotted purchase) is just sitting there, staring at me.
-The house is a mess, cuz J-F having been away last weekend and all of us feeling under the weather, we have quickly fallen off our schedule of chores.
-I need some mothering, but there's too much work to do so I can't go visit my mom quite yet; besides which my mom is still mad at me for besmirching the family name. When we do go visit, she'll be too busy grandmothering anyway.

This morning, I'm issuing invoices for vast amounts of money, all part of my plan to return to the comfortable path of consumerism, while listening to my music very loudly.