Friday, December 31, 2004

"Murder and champagne follow"

Slate has collected the opinions of a motley crew on the standout cultural happenings of the year.

Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) extols the virtues of the 1950 Mexican film Aventurera, this year released on DVD:

What is the film about? Ninon Sevilla, in a fervent, twitchy performance, plays Elena, a young girl who endures sexual temptation, the breakup of her family, a suicide, and dance lessons in the first 10 minutes of the film. Following that, Gout thoughtfully provides a brief flashback encompassing all the events of the past 10 minutes. Murder and champagne follow. White slavery is involved and unrequited love. Also, table tennis. . . . Also, it is a musical.

I so have to see this movie.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

A series of unfortunate allusions

Have you ever wondered if there was a hidden message in Sunny Baudelaire's exclamations of "nonsense"? Are you puzzled by the directive that you should never, under any circumstances, let the Virginian Wolfsnake near a typewriter?

Who is Lemony Snicket, and why all the morose dedications to this Beatrice woman? invites you to "check out some of these notable allusions in the series, which leaves no dystopia unreferenced."

The site also offers plentiful links, notably:
Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized FAQ.

(Link via Kids Lit.)

Sadly, burdened as we are with small child, we have not seen the dismal film version of this unfortunate series. Apparently the closing credits are stunning and, though nothing else in the movie is, worth the price of admission.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Christmas without treacle

Auggie Wren's Christmas Story, by Paul Auster, first appeared in print in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1990. The story made another appearance in the film Smoke, also written by Paul Auster and starring Harvey Keitel (Auggie Wren) and William Hurt (Paul, a writer).

This year for Christmas the story was published as a gift book, 36 pages sprinkled with illustrations by Isol, spine wrapped in red cloth. I saw it for the first time while doing some last-minute Christmas shopping last week and had to have it for myself.

I love Paul Auster, not least because in these pages he so clearly articulates what I was struggling to express just last week:

I spent the next several days in despair, warring with the ghosts of Dickens, O. Henry, and other masters of the Yuletide spirit. The very phrase "Christmas story" had unpleasant associations for me, evoking dreadful outpourings of hypocritical mush and treacle. Even at their best, Christmas stories were no more than wish-fulfillment dreams, fairy tales for adults, and I'd be damned if I'd ever allowed myself to write something like that. And yet, how could anyone propose to write an unsentimental Christmas story?

Paul Auster can.

The story-telling is matter of fact and fairly emotionless, but there are pauses for reflection and some axiomatic gems:
"If you don't take the time to look, you'll never manage to see anything."
"As long as there's one person to believe it, there's no story that can't be true."

 Posted by Hello

The pictures are warm colours. Some things are sharply in focus, while background things are sketched in. Scenes are gridded and boxed. Isol is effective in conflating the story's "action" to a two-dimensional plane.

I won't tell you the story here, but I will tell you that it is framed within one of my very favourite ideas, which has lived with me ever since I saw it expressed in Smoke. Auggie Wren takes a photo every morning at the same time of the same view outside his cigar shop. I think about his act almost every day. "By planting himself in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself," he is photographing time. This is how we all mark time, though we may not do so in such regular or recognizable patterns and we, most of us, don't have tangible photographs to show for it.

If you have 17 minutes to spare, you can listen to the NPR broadcast of Paul Auster reading the story, Christmas Day 2004.

The conspiracies within

My first reaction to today's Salon piece on The Da Vinci Code (by Dan Brown) was puzzlement. Did it really take Laura Miller this long to realize that the idea for the Code came from a suspect piece of research (Holy Blood, Holy Grail)? Or did she have fresh insight on new evidence?

Miller has an epiphany: what draws people to the Code is not characterization or plotting, but the seed of "truth" on which it is built — the grand conspiracy of religion.

(What's the big deal if Jesus married and had children?, you ask. Something to this effect: Jesus' leaving a bloodline throws into question the central tenet of the Catholic Church — Christ's godliness.)

HBHG is a shoddy (though fascinating) work. Its authors seemingly hoped
to legitimize it through extensive footnoting and obscure references.

Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln are the Moriartys of pseudohistory, and "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" is their great triumph. Their techniques include burying their readers in chin-high drifts of factoids — some valid but irrelevant, some uncheckable (the untranslated diaries of obscure 17th century clerics, and so on), others, like the labyrinthine family trees of various medieval French noblemen, simply numbing, and if you trouble to figure them out, pretty inconclusive. A preposterous idea will first be floated as a guess (it is "not inconceivable" that the Knights Templar found documentation of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's marriage in Jerusalem), then later presented as a tentative hypothesis, then still later treated as a fact that must be accounted for (the knights had to take those documents somewhere, so it must have been the south of France!).

HBHG was reprinted to profit from the code phenomenon (my own copy, about a decade old, is called The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail), and its authors are suing Brown for breach of copyright of ideas and research.

Miller sorts out some of the facts from the fiction in the Code as well as in HBHG, as countless others have already done to capitalize off of the Code's success. She's happy to point out authors' mistakes.

What Miller fails to grasp is that even Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and its acknowledged inspiration, was not wholly original, and the factual inaccuracies of it don't matter as much as she thinks.

For as long as there has been a Church, people have questioned the authenticity of Christ.

I love conspiracies. Not because I believe them, but because they dare to question the status quo. In the guise of entertainment, conspiracies offer a framework by which millions of people who would otherwise never step outside of themselves are allowed to explore ideas they would shun in polite society.

Favouritism at the office. Forged documents. JFK. Aliens. To think, Christ may be the biggest conspiracy of all!

The Code taps into the smudge of paranoia we're all born with — the inner voice that wonders if all is as it seems, that poses doubts, that asks who is in control. It's the same seed of consciousness that grapples with free will and God.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Traditions old and new

When any two people come together to form a new family, there is a blending of traditions. Our respective family traditions are rooted in the customs of our respective heritages: French-Canadian and Polish — perhaps a little harder to blend than in your average couple, not because of the vastness of the differences so much as the strength with which they are held.

That said, every family has its own patterns of behaviour, even as a product of its history, uniquely its own.

One of my favourite family traditions is the jigsaw puzzle. On returning home from midnight mass, my sister and I would break open the box that one or the other of us had inevitably received among our gifts (unwrapped Christmas Eve). It wasn't unusual to stay up past 4 in the morning, making sure the border was assembled and pieces were appropriately sorted. After a few hours' sleep, we'd be back at it. I prefer to spend Christmas Day dressed in new pyjamas.

My mother is often sad at Christmas. In part, this comes from trying to recapture a Christmas from her past, though that ideal picture-perfect holiday had never been captured to begin with. She still hopes that we will gather 'round the piano and sing carols — not any of those modern Christmas songs about Santa either. We've never had a piano.

Since I'm away from them this year, those traditions cannot be upheld, only remembered.

My own vision of an ideal Christmas, so clear that it's almost a memory, consists of everybody pyjama'ed and curled up in their corners, reading by the fireplace. I've never had a working fireplace.

As it is, as a new family we've determined that we will all of us, toddler included, dress our Christmas tree together, no matter how late in December we manage to coordinate it.

J-F has sworn that Christmas Day will be the day of the wearing of the Habs sweater. (Curses! Why did I ever buy it for him that Christmas 5 years ago?!)

I do a reading of The Grinch.

This year was quiet. Fun and games, books and movies, and food. The years to come undoubtedly will see other traditions evolve.

This Christmas has turned out to be the Christmas of playdoh. For all the gifts Helena received, by far her favourite was the one I picked up at the dollar store. For a dollar. Playdoh, with which Helena makes carrots. Then more carrots. (I've been trying to inspire her in the direction of bananas, but no success yet.) I was a little more ambitious: cats, mice, radishes, apple trees, various vehicles, elephants, roses, daisies, and llamas. I feel I may have missed my calling in life.

I look forward to spending the rest of the week unravelling The Globe and Mail's annual (monstrously colossal) Christmas crossword.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The toddler, the monkey, and the shrink

We have a Christmas tree! Finally. It's not dressed yet, but we have our tree.

Helena was home today and it was lovely. Mostly. Except when she turned into an unpleasant little monster for no apparent reason for hour-long stretches at a time. Maybe a molar. Or gas. Maybe I'm just out of practice.

Or maybe she's figured out that I've pretty much decided not to get her anything for Christmas. (Though one would think this would elicit extra nice behaviour. Two-year-olds sure have a lot to learn.) We did pick up that easel for her, though I hardly expect her eyes to light up when she unwraps that. Some eye-rolling maybe ("Mommy thinks she's still playing The Sims"). I'd tucked away a book or two for her, but again, not a lot of spontaneous glee likely to result from this. My best shot at toddler joy is the vat of playdoh I picked up at the dollar store.

I'm still feeling ambivalent about this holiday season. Other bloggers offer up a lot to think about, assigning tasks that will go unanswered by me for the time being.

This month the monkey asks:
What would you do if you had a free year, all to yourself, to dedicate to whatever you wanted? Assume money was not a problem — you've just received a $60,000 Monkey Grant.

Travel? Write?

I don't know. I might just spend the whole year thinking about, and that could be a very worthwhile endeavour.

Sleep? I miss sleep.

The First Annual SC&A Holiday Blogger Challenge is also under way:
If you are a leftie blogger, go out and find three rightie blogs to say something nice about. Write a post about it on your blog, and leave a comment on their blogs. If you are a rightie, do the same for a leftie. If you are a mom, do the same for a angsty teen. You get the picture.

I'm not sure that an angsty teen is quite the opposite of me. Most days I feel like an angsty teen.

But this is an exercise worth doing. Get to know people who are very different from you. Be nice to them. The question begs to be asked: What is my opposite?

Growing up late

"Sooner or later . . . most kids will be forced to confront their own mediocrity."

Yes. Mediocre. Most of our kids are mediocre. Sure, each is special in his or her own way, but when it comes to smarts and successes, they can't all be geniuses. Ah, the vastness of mediocrity.

This is probably harder for parents to accept than it is for the children themselves. Particularly when the parents are, umm, my age — a generation born in a period of transitioning parenting styles. Generation X hasn't yet confronted its own mediocrity. We parents just don't know any better.

Go read this article now. I don't know where to begin in quoting or summarizing this article. Much of what it says is not new, and is obvious, but it's worth repeating.

I think my kid's a genius. I need to be reminded that Helena is her own person, that I cannot expect her to live out my dreams and ambitions. Even when she develops her own, she will fail. She'll figure things out. From this we will learn and move forward.

Parents need to realize their kids aren't disadvantaged by the occasional setback; they're normal.

Did you know?: "Over 40,000 U.S. schools no longer have recess."

"Parents and schools are no longer geared toward child development, they're geared to academic achievement."

Parents overprotect and micromanage. These behaviours and responses to them become systematized in, for example, grade inflation. All of which breed ineffective coping mechanisms, sanctioned by today's technologies as they're assimilated into our society and culture; for instance, the instant gratification that cellphones enable.

Because of all this, it takes longer to grow up. "Postadolescence" lasts year more than it used to. You may be 30 years old before you're an "adult."

(Is that necessarily a bad thing? We live longer, we work longer. Our childhoods may be filled with never-before-felt pressures, so why not extend adolescence, assuming it's enjoyed?)

Parental anxiety has its place. But the way things now stand, it's not being applied wisely. We're paying too much attention to too few kids — and in the end, the wrong kids... [R]esources are being expended for kids who don't need them.

There are kids who are worth worrying about — kids in poverty, stresses Anderegg. "We focus so much on our own children," says Elkind, "It's time to begin caring about all children."

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Books for Christmas

Except for the Grinch, and Dickens' A Christmas Carol, I'm not a fan of Christmas books.

This list of Christmas books is refreshing in that it includes cookbooks as well as humour and coping techniques.

Still, when I think of Christmas books, it's primarily children's books that come to mind.

Other lists and bookstore displays would have me believe that seasonal books are either frivolous things, often geared toward boosting consumerism, or strongly moralistic and overtly religious fables, designed to instill the "true" meaning of Christmas.

I'll start brushing up for next year. Such books were never part of my childhood. I may yet find a happy medium, a story that's nonmaterialistic and which mentions neither Santa nor God. Maybe it doesn't have to be about Christmas at all... (Suggestions and reminders welcome.)

Christmas books for me are not necessarily books about Christmas or those set in cold, snowy winters; they're the books that Christmas gives me the time to luxuriate in — the time to stay up late, wear my pyjamas all day, huddle under blankets with a new book.

The biggest "Christmas book" this year, already purchased by 263 million people, is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and will be available in stores July 16. I want one of those.

Songs of innocence

I realized something about Helena's songs. It turns out they're not obscure French nursery rhymes that I'd have to spend hours researching. She makes them up!

We've been playing with her shape-sorting castle. Helena embarked on an elaborate dance-like pattern with all the characters — king, queen, court jester, and squire (well, he looks like he should be a squire) — exiting through the drawbridge, leaping from turret to turret, then plummeting to the floor.

And all the while, she sang! The lyrics were mostly gobbledygook (or possibly French), but the words "castle," "king," "queen," and "tombé" were clearly intelligible. Steady rhythm and a recurring musical motif constructed around these particular four characters.

There are other games and other patterns, with other songs. She makes them up!

A jazzy Aristocats-inspired "oh yeah" finishes off many of her tunes.

Helena's musical appreciation and competence has risen to such a level that she now sings along with us in the car to Blur's Song 2. Woo hoo!

Monday, December 20, 2004

In praise of expensive shampoo, and various stupidities

It's stupid cold outside. The wind chill factor gives us -39°C.

Stupid black beret I lost at the grocery store this weekend. I lose one every year.

Stupid baby waking up at 5:30 am. It's inhuman.

In praise of expensive shampoo. I've been an Aveda girl for years, but I ran out of shampoo almost two months ago. It hasn't been convenient to replace it, so I've been using Helena's baby shampoo instead, which keeps my hair clean enough. Finally I got around to buying some of my usual, and I feel like I have million-dollar hair — lush, beautiful hair. I almost don't need to keep that salon appointment I scheduled for this week.

Stupid Ikea lamps and their nonstandard lightbulb requirements. Stupid me for not noticing and buying such lightbulbs while we were at Ikea a few weeks ago. Stupid lightbulb I finally tracked down, whose packaging clearly indicates it is a match to that indicated on the Ikea product, still doesn't fit.

In praise of the South American musicians at the metro station this morning and their soul-liftng panpipes.

Stupid SAQ being on strike. Now where are we supposed to find champagne and vodka with which to toast J-F's birthday this evening? Sure, we can get cheap red wine at the dépanneur, but then how will we know today's any more special than any other day?

In praise of fancy pastries conveniently located in the café over our metro station.

Stupid key chain with its shiny smoothness and jangle of attraction. Helena likes keys; rather, my keys. The keychain is a heavy and stylized silver cat, a talisman of sorts. Like one of the rocks you pick up at the beach, only you don't throw it into the sea, you just hang on to it cuz it's weathered smooth and you like the weight of it in your hand. Sometimes it's easier to let Helena play with the keys than it is to listen to her tantrum about not being allowed to play with the keys. After searching for more than 10 minutes, I found them in a plastic shopping bag tucked behind the catfood under the kitchen sink (one of the usual suspect locations, actually), along with a flashy-nosed reindeer, a small canister of playdoh, a no longer operational toy cellphone, and an odd creature with wheels for legs.

In praise of stupid music recitals. We pay a small supplement so Helena can enjoy the benefits of "music lessons" at daycare. This morning was the session-end recital. For 8 minutes a young woman played tape-recorded selections at excessively loud volumes and gesticulated wildly while 9 toddlers banged sticks together and shook their maracas, or not, and parents observed, mostly through the lens of their camcorders. Helena hung onto my leg, though she lives for this stuff ordinarily. She even turned down Xavier when he asked her to dance. J-F and I went for coffee afterwards so we could get all the pent-up mocking of small children and hippie instructors out of our system. Ah, music!

Finders keepers

In response to my desperate cries for help for my book addiction, and in homage to the perverse thrill in the magical appearance of a long-hunted book, a friend sent me a book. A graphic novel actually. Finder: Talisman, by Carla Speed McNeil.

You can read the first portion of Talisman online:
TALISMAN is about a book...It's the kind of book that makes you think that if you can somehow swallow it whole, you'll be magically imbued with the skills and abilities it contains — but once you get it home, it's just another collection of interesting words and attractive pictures.

My edition includes endnotes. Although I like to believe that art should speak for itself, I admit that often we don't know how to listen or what to listen for. The notes are there to elucidate the text to the reader, not to condescend. Notes can even become part of the art.

McNeil's notes read like the director's running commentary on a DVD. Mostly interesting, sometimes insightful, but far from essential to appreciating the story.

I've enjoyed a handful of graphic novels. I tend to read them like I do books — I glance over the illustrations, but mostly I find they distract me from the story – which is in the words (or so I've been conditioned to believe).

I haven't yet figured out how much of the story is in the pictures, how much I need to pay attention to them, how much I'll miss if I dismiss them. (Here, they're in black and white.)

What stuns me most is the feeling that my brain has been picked, that here laid before me are thoughts and emotions seated deep in my past. Somehow, in this form, matters of consequence are distilled to their essence.

How can I begin to enumerate the points that resonate with me?

It's dedicated "to the kid with the book." That would be me.

A book is imbued with significance according to who gives it you, who reads it to you, and what it is you're trying to escape from.

It's never how you remember it.
It faded away. I couldn't remember it. Like a dream. Just bits and pieces. But it was so vivid.

(I remember an image I read that I've never been able to retrace. I think it was in a short story, probably a collection edited by Alberto Manguel. A character was being led down a hallway or staircase and was struck by the portraits lining the passage. The expressiveness of the female subjects. He realizes the photos capture these women on the brink of orgasm. I thought this added a unique dimension both to the character making the realization and the character who lived there. The image has stayed with me for well over a decade now. However, I'm haunted more by not being able to find its source. As if the page was destroyed after I read it.)

The criticism that reading voraciously doesn't require thinking or acting.

The problem of being a perfectionist:
The next day I'd swear I wouldn't put down a word until it was perfect in my mind (which meant, of course, that I would never put down a word. Period.)

(For a while I thought I wanted to be writer when I grew up. I remember hearing Peter Gzowski interview Timothy Findley. Findley laughed at the notion of people wanting to be writers. You either write, or you don't. It doesn't take schooling or special equipment. Pen and paper. And you write. You're a writer. At which point I realized, as much as the idea of being a writer appealed to me, I wasn't a writer. Not yet, anyway.)

Like our hero, Marcie, I own at least a half-dozen really pretty blank journals that don't deserve my scribblings. They remain blank. Thank goodness the internet's so ugly — I scrawl all over that.

The talisman we need to get whatever we're doing done. Paul Auster fetishized a notebook in Oracle Night.

Something about magic. The possibilities. All fitting into a bigger picture.

Author profile.

Interview regarding origins, processes, and directions:
It incorporates aspects of speculative science fiction with family drama; the high technology of cranial jack computer interfaces with houses set within living trees; the political games played within and between extended clan families. McNeil describes the series as aboriginal SF. "It has to do with 'primitive' cultures meeting 'advanced' ones," she explains. "Scalps and scalpels, trackers and trackballs, ritual magic and videogames."

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Shaping the postapocalypse

Margaret Atwood considers some plots for novels and some of the difficulties certain elements present.

Who shall we follow in the course of this doleful story? I vote for Chris and Amanda. They are a nice young couple who’ve had great sex in Chapter One, or possibly Chapter Two. Then realisation has dawned on them, ruining their plans to renovate their kitchen and install a new round eco-friendly refrigerator that pops up out of the kitchen counter. They flee to their summer cottage, as civic order breaks down in the once-thriving town where they live and people start eating their cats and goldfish and the dried ornamental sunflowers in their dining-room floral arrangements.

And if you still don't like Margaret Atwood, then you have no sense of humour. Or you're not very smart. Probably both.

(Via the Literary Saloon.)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Ups and downs

Down: I didn't get the job I wanted, which, it turns out, I wanted very badly indeed, but I did not recognize this (nor did I stop myself from saying stupid things during the interview) till it was too late to do anything about it.

Up: Helena after she pees in her potty, or pretends to pee in her potty, wipes herself with toilet paper that she disposes of in the real toilet. She flushes and waves "Buh-bye pee-pee!"

Down: My mother. I've always considered our relationship good, but never close — she was never my confidante or friend. It works for us. Except for those few weeks that one spring when I was floundering about at university. I won't air our current strife here, but it unsettles me enough that I wish I kept a private and anonymous journal, maybe on paper, just to get it out of my system. (Aha! I could do that!) I'm fairly certain the problem — my problem — lies in the sense of obligation one feels toward Doing the Right Thing, I just don't know what that is.

Down: Being a mother, in the context of my current feelings toward my mother. How powerful and fragile the bond between mother and daughter. How fucking scary.

Up: Apparently I don't need psychotherapy, maternal issues notwithstanding.

Down: Christmas. It's almost here. At least this year, the panic is striking a little earlier than usual, which is more conducive to productivity and results dammit. Although, this year holds less stress. But much ambivalence. No travel, no mother, no brother or sister, no unrealistic expectations and weird schedules, less presents. And I miss that. More sleep, more snuggling, more movies and books. More...EASE. Less tradition. Makes me a little sad, really.

Down: For the third day in a row, to retrieve the little one from daycare I braved the perils of public transit during rush hour, all cold, unpleasant, busy days. Herded like cattle. Sheep. Lemmings.

Down: There are streets that are sloped and slippery. The fronts of my thighs hurt from tensing up against the potential fall.

Up: The festive dress I picked up for Helena. And the cute jeans, because they were on sale. And the cozy pyjamas, cuz she deserves some that don't have weird stains on them.

Up: The way Helena goes on about Père Noël, only she says, "Pe-o-e," and I am mystified that she would find this easier to say without the consonants.

Up. Posted by Hello

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Grinch mother

I am a terrible, grinchy mother.

I sent Helena to bed last night, even though Dr Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas was on television.

In all fairness, I didn't know the Grinch was on TV till after I'd put Helena to bed. I thought for a moment about retrieving her, but then I thought that would just compound the awfulness of my parenting abilities and misplaced priorities.

Everybody knows the Grinch is far more important than bedtime.

I love this Christmas cartoon. It makes my heart pound and stop and weep and smile.

Nobody reads Dr Seuss like Boris Karloff, and the music with its delicious lyrics is spectacular. "Your heart is full of unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk."

(J-F and I were listening to this song the other day and lamenting the lost art of the insult.)

How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the first book I bought for Helena, for her first Christmas two years ago. We'd started a little library for her before she was born, and she'd received books from friends and family, but this was the first book I chose for her — for the little person I was getting to know, as much as for the person I hoped she would become.

I even inscribed it — something corny about her causing my own heart to grow three sizes.

I read it to her that Christmas. Reading to her was so much easier then, when she couldn't crawl let alone run away, when she wouldn't turn pages before I'd reached the end, when she wouldn't point at every single object on the page and demand some acknowledgement of her naming abilities and descriptive capacity. She was a captive audience.

The book's out on the coffeetable now, waiting for the moment to strike when we simply must visit Whoville. Who knows whether we'll linger or simply pass through.

As for the cartoon, Helena may have to wait until next year.

Someday, I hope she'll forgive me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Which random number are you?

You are 716.

To take this quiz, click here.

It's beautiful.

Very unfortunate events

Lemony Snicket, on Daniel Handler having children:
Mr Handler informs me that his first child has recently survived his first year, and is seriously considering learning to walk. The creation of this child was encouraged by the observation of other children, and also for the usual reasons, such as having piles and piles of children's books lying around the house without any children to read them, and a sneaking suspicion that one is getting far too much sleep.

The haze of real life

A day late and a dollar short. I don't even know exactly what that phrase means, but that's how I feel.

I blame video games. Not for my not knowing. For the feeling.

But more about that in a minute.

I've received a BoB nomination. That's BoB. Best of Blog Weblog Awards 2004 — The Best Personal Blogs You Ought To Be Reading! So this is the part where I say it's an honour just to be nominated.

Now I also feel obliged to spread the word of BoB. I know that the 19 of you who regularly read my ramblings don't go in much for awards or ratings. But in case you stumbled here by accident and you're into blogging, you should know about BoB and the great work the people at BoB are doing. Support BoB. It's about the little blog, the blogger's blog. "The BoB Awards go out of their way to recognize the great efforts of those online diarists who blog about their[sic] minutiae of their life."

Also, there may be some strangers passing by to review the nomination, so please be nice to them. There. Have I whored myself sufficiently? (I'm guessing pointing out their typo won't do me any favours.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled entry.

I've been struggling to meet a deadline for work. At the expense of sleep, quality time with my daughter, quality time with the guy I'm shacked up with, time spent buying Christmas presents for others, time getting film developed and writing up and sending out Christmas cards (is it too late now?), time spent getting that bank mess straightened out. You get the idea. But not at the expense of time spent reading.

While the job struggled to take shape and monster hunts with Helena were limited, I read another stupid novel. Isabella just had to have her little book fix. How inopportune.

I'm tired and cranky. Mostly, I'm in an I'm-such-an-inadequate-mother funk, frittering away my days so that evenings and weekends I can tell my little girl, "Mommy can't play right now. Mommy has to work." We send Helena to daycare so Mommy can have bubble baths and read novels.

(Whine: but I really needed that bubble bath — it's been a rough few weeks, and then there was that whole interview thing that had me completely distracted from work anyway, and I can't be a good mommy if I'm not in myself, rested and happy. Blah, blah, blah.)

I blame video games.

Only this time it's a video game in the form of a book. Specifically, the form of Codex, by Lev Grossman. (I have it in paperback, courtesy of QPB, but it seems it's generally not available yet.)

Edward should know better. An investment banker with a couple weeks off before taking up a new position in London should know better than to get sucked into a video game. Or into a search for a heretofore thought imaginary mansucript, cataloguing a library, getting himself tangled up, albeit at a distance, in the personal drama of one very rich and secretive family.

He really should know better. Some of the reviewers consider this a flaw, that the protagonist is too stupid to be believable. I think it adds colour to his character — don't all of us (even you successful types) do things against our better judgement? I should've known better.

The author holds down a day job as book critic for Time. He's read enough books to ask some interesting questions about the fate of the narrative in a technology-driven society. He's not the first to do so, and he won't be the last to scrape together a novel from these ideas.

Lev Grossman's literary thriller Codex transcends the current vogue for the archaic—explicitly linking the 14th and 21st centuries by considering the respective, and not entirely dissimilar, powers of parchment and PlayStation. It's an artful, populist, conceptually ambitious exercise in what Umberto Eco has labeled "postmodern medievalism" (a microgenre pretty much dominated by the Italian semiotician's own The Name of the Rose and Monty Python and the Holy Grail). An addictive meditation on narrative addictions, the book toggles between the disconcertingly lifelike virtual environment of a state-of-the-art video game and an increasingly dreamlike dusty-stacks search for a lost, possibly apocryphal Chaucer-era manuscript.

The cracked code proves disappointingly primitive and the double-crossing machinations are almost perversely low-stakes. If anything, there's a modest, slackerly charm in the manner Codex fulfills its thriller obligations. You can sense the author's sheepishness about stepping on the suspense pedal. The closest to a brush with danger is a brief, awkward confrontation on the sidewalk; there's no car chase, just a climactic cab ride over the Manhattan Bridge to nowhere more sinister than brownstone Brooklyn.

I couldn't put the book down. Grossman somehow (how?) captures the compulsivity of video games and translates it to text.

The best games have a complex narrative structure. Unlike the passive activity of television absorption, and more so than books they delude you into thinking you are in control, an active participant with power over your characters' fate. But your characters' worlds only extend so far as someone had the foresight to code them.

Edward at a LAN party:
They were all in it together, a Local Area Network of brothers in arms, bound by the electric bond of virtual combat. Could a book do this?

Well, yes. When it incites discussion. Admittedly, reading is more of a solitary pursuit, but video games even when designed as single-player adventures retain the same immersive and compulsive qualities.

From the New York Times:
He's a stranger in the world of computer gamers and programmers, just as he is in the library; we enter it with him: "He was starting to see what people found so addictive about these games. Momus had none of the slapdash inefficiency of reality: every moment was tense with hushed anticipation, foreordained meaning. It was a brighter, higher-grade, more compelling, better-engineered version of reality." You might say, just like fiction.

Breaking away from this novel left me with the same hungover quality as after playing games far into the night, when the digitized world invades your sleep and transforms your real-life instincts, when you look for trapdoors in uneven surfaces and plot escapes through alleyways you'd never noticed before. Feeling forced to repeat mundane tasks till you get it just right, or in case you're missing something.

(Do people younger than I experience that nausea, or is it so much a part of their lives they don't notice it?)

How does Grossman achieve this in a book? Maybe the credit lies more with the reader, like with the player, than we give credit. The willingness to give oneself over, to accept the rules, to step into a universe of someone else's creation.

Some call the ending abrupt and disappointing. The ends of games are generally anticlimactic — you feel jolted back to reality; where do you go from here? But I fail to see a better resolution. Anything "flashier" would ring false. The ending was logical, fitting, open.

The novel does bear out Grossman's conviction that books are not a threatened medium:
Books are beautiful, and we have deep sentimental feelings about them, but that's not why they'll survive. They'll survive because nothing else can do what they do. And that helps me sleep at night.

The book's finished. The job I was working on is done. Now onto more important matters: who will be the next apprentice?

Monday, December 13, 2004

Morning rush hour. Posted by Hello

I think my geraniums are dead. Posted by Hello

Wot the dickens...

Just the other night I came across these comments regarding Dickens at Catalogue Blog:

I have never been a big fan of Charles Dickens' novels. I admire him greatly as a writer, and can appreciate that his fiction is great fiction, but I have always felt alienated by his two-dimensional portrayal of women.

Further to all the Dickens comments of the other day, I'm wondering if his treatment of women factors into your dislike (or like) of Dickens, or if it's a non-issue. I'd never given the matter any thought before.

(I'm starting to think I should read some real Dickens now just so I can get more of the jokes to be had in the Jasper Fforde books.)

Feel free to discuss this among yourselves while I sit here quietly working.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Big words for little people

The ever-entertaining Bill Richardson looks at a few children's books in today's Globe and Mail.

Nothing is more creatively daunting than the picture book. True believers aver that Good Night Moon is an intellectual achievement just marginally more sustained than Gravity's Rainbow.

Bill was once a children's librarian. I feel I can trust him. He gives kids some credit for being able to handle things like creepy endings and big words.

I feel I need the help of a professional to navigate this genre. (I miss hearing about E and Tulip's adventures in reading.) Of course, once I can get past the sense of the overwhelming responsibility of shaping my daughter's reading sensibilities, this journey into the unknown is rewarding for both of us.

Richardson points out that many kids' books set out to reassure children or to impart a moral. The books are marketed to the parents, after all. One can't help but wonder if authors take fewer risks with creativity than they might.

Margaret Atwood steps up to the plate with another book featuring consonant alliteration. This time, "B" and "D," bold and delightful, bodacious and delicious.

What I like most about BB and DD is what some will object to, and that's that it's full of words that will be totally unfamiliar to many in its "target audience": "She had to drudge from dawn to dusk, dabbing with a dust mop and dealing with dirty dishes in a disreputable dive, where dirty-deed-doers drank daiquiris."

Some will say that this kind of thing, and there's a lot of it, means that you're forever stopping to offer up an explanation. Others will say that it's a good exercise in vocabulary enrichment and hell, you have to learn about rum some time, it might as well be when you're 4. Me, I think the virtue in this cascade of consonants is the joy that lives in the sound of the words, the merely phonetic exuberance that's at least as important, at a certain age, as meaning. Whether Bashful Bob and Doleful Dorinda works — and here I'm thinking of it as a read-aloud — will depend in large measure on the persuasiveness of the performance.

Time to start practicing.

A friend recently favourably reviewed Atwood's "R" book.

She brought to my attention an article in which Scholastic’s Language Development and Reading Specialist observes:

Young children love the sound of long and seemingly difficult words. Your child might suddenly blurt out that her friend's behavior is "ridiculous" or that the baby's diaper is "saturated." These instances of surprisingly sophisticated language use come from children's attention to, and interest in, the way adults use words to express precise feelings and reactions. So don't shy away from using words you think are over your child's head.

The beauty of it is that these are the words we use every day, that Helena hears every day, even if sometimes we choose simpler words when addressing her directly. Why should I avoid "ridiculous" in print when I blurt it out naturally a dozen times in the course of a day. (Really. We use the word "ridiculous" a lot around here.)

Atwood's "P" and "R" books are ready, wrapped, and waiting for Helena. "B" and "D" will find their company soon enough.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Catch a star

One of the books Helena received for her birthday is How to Catch a Star, by Oliver Jeffers, published by HarperCollins. Delightful.

It reminds me a lot of Kitten's First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes (which is extraordinary, by the way, and finding a place on lots of year-end best-children's-books lists), in the naive attempts, and failures, of our heroes to reach the sky.

The text is little meatier for this boy-hero than in kitten's adventures: "He thought he could fly up in his spaceship and just grab the star. But his spaceship had run out of petrol last Tuesday when he flew to the moon."

 Posted by Hello

The illustrations are a complete contrast to Henkes'. They're wacky and modern, but without being jarring or busy.

While the Henkes book is romantic, the Jeffers is adventurous. How to Catch a Star recounts a serious expedition, not a whimsical dream of a notion.

It's been generally well reviewed, and I like it.

Helena doesn't yet love this book. It's rare that she experiences love at first sight, whether with books or any object. (People, too, I think.) She's a lot like me that way. She has to warm up to the idea of something.

But I already see the glint in her eye that signifies this book is an idea that holds some appeal.

J-F dropped off Helena at daycare this morning and reports that little Xavier was delighted to see her. He called out her name, ran over, and hugged her. She hugged back. They stood hugging. Minutes passed. They kept hugging. To the point that J-F wanted to scream "Get your grimy little paws off my daughter."

Although, it being all fluffy-snowy outside, today is a good day for hugging.

Helena's spent other mornings kissing this same boy. I don't know how to react to this. Is she merely mimicking behaviour she sees at home? Is she "exploring and discovering"? Has she formed a special attachment to Xavier? Is it an attachment imbued with anything other than having a best friend? How is it that she can already be this complex creature with emotional needs satisfied by physical comfort?

It's obvious to me that the emotional and physical are intertwined in our experience from birth — no wonder we have difficulty trying to separate them (I know now, of course, we shouldn't bother trying).

I won't be seeing my mother for Christmas this year, nor do I have set plans to see her immediately after the holiday. (This is a first.) As such, I've ordered some presents for family and friends online and am having them delivered there. The first parcel arrived today. My mother did not remember my warnings and instructions: my brother has already opened the package — the unwrapped contents are spilled — and thus will have no surprises from me on Christmas. On top of this, my mother actually sounded disappointed to learn that the other gift therein contained is intended for my sister and not for her. And so the festivities commence.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

I love Nick Hornby

He's smart and funny. And sincere. A regular guy. His novels make me laugh.

He wrote a novel in which the narrator was female. It's just about the only example of cross-gender narratorship that didn't make me cringe. That counts for some kind of talent.

And his books make great movies. Vastly underrated movies.

The new book, The Polysyllabic Spree, is a collection of his "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns in The Believer. (This book will probably not be made into a movie, though I'd like to see someone try.)

Zaid's finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."

That's me! And you, probably! That's us! "Thousands of unread books"! "Truly cultured"! Look at this month's list: Chekhov's letters, Amis's letters, Dylan Thomas's letters ... What are the chances of getting through that lot? I've started on the Chekhov, but the Amis and the Dylan Thomas have been put straight into their permanent home on the shelves, rather than onto any sort of temporary pending pile. The Dylan Thomas I saw remaindered for 15 quid (down from 50) just after I'd read a terrific review of a new Thomas biography in The New Yorker; the Amis letters were a fiver. But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit nonfiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course, but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me — my rarely examined operatic streak, for example — are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don't have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children ... But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. Maybe that's not worth the 30-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it's got to be worth something, right?

Right on, Nick!

Review of the book in Salon:
Hornby is writing about the day-to-day process of being readers as most of us practice it — not following some neat scheme but reading without premeditation, going higgledy-piggledy from one subject to another, based on whim, recommendation, chance.

The result is less a column to read for insight into any one book (though there is that sometimes) than a column in which to recognize the habits that bind readers together, no matter the differences in what they read.

In which Hornby claims Dickens is "the greatest novelist who ever lived" for, among other reasons, the "jokes — proper, funny jokes, not 'literary' jokes."

Rule 1 in this essay on making book recommendations is a really good one:
If you really want people to read a book, buy a copy and give it to them. One of the best book recommenders I know swears by this policy. He says you can't reasonably expect them to read it if you won't put your money where your mouth is.

I've done that a few times in the past, but I'm reminded how effective it can be.

That said, I'm not going to buy you all a copy of a Nick Hornby book. (Heck, I don't know which I would choose to give you — you'd all get different ones, for different reasons.) Heck, why am I even referring to a rule on book recommendations — it doesn't really belong here, except in that it's a smart and decent thing, and that recommendations, whether a professional critic's or a friend's, are a big part of how we build the libraries that shape and describe our lives.

I just like Nick Hornby.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004


Helena's word of the week: coquine. "Mischievous." She's been repeating it all week. It was the first word out of her mouth this morning (well, after "mama" and "milk").

The only reason she'd know the word is if she'd been hearing the word, and the only reason she'd be hearing the word is if someone had reason enough to use it.

We had reports last week that she likes hiding things. I can picture her amusement at watching her peers look for their favourite toy, then revealing the missing object with a flourish and a wink. Yes, she's got the makings of a prankster.

Astronaut or rockstar? Posted by Hello

The other night Helena tried to engage me in a song. Some little ditty with actions she'd learned at daycare. Charming, to be sure, but it made me a little sad. Of course the song was in French, and, as such, completely foreign to me. I'll find it out eventually, but it takes more effort than simply reaching back for half-memories from my own childhood. (J-F, it turns out, is not a reliable source for nursery rhymes.) Even when Helena "sings" in English, it can take minutes to decipher a couple words and recognize a hint of a rhythm before I figure out the song and can join in. I know that bilingualism can only serve her well in this world, but it's a reminder too that she is growing into her own person. Awesome, but it still makes me a little sad.

The new do. Posted by Hello

I bought a lovely little children's book on sale yesterday — Hush, by Anna Strauss — though I think it's more for me than for Helena. The little girl in times of need turns to her mother, and her mother comforts her, and the girl grows up, but still turns to her mother, and her mother still comforts her. It's very sentimental (with simple, happy illustrations), but it's a nice reminder of my role.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

One unhatched chicken

I just got back from a job interview. I think it went well, but I'm not sure I'm any good at gauging these things.

I set out looking very smart. (Smartly dressed, that is. I'm afraid some days my eyes glaze over and I don't look very clever at all.) Wearing my new coat (I'd conscientiously set it aside yesterday, keeping it hermetically sealed after having removed all cat hair from it) and my new boots (When I bought them last weekend they were the best of thousands I'd tried on, but I bemoaned the fact they did not come close to matching the boots that needed replacing on comfort. I bought them anyway. Today, they are surprisingly comfortable.) and sporting my new handbag (Large enough to hold a diaper, snacks, and whatever novel I'm reading, without screaming "diaper bag" or looking obscenely pouchy. Today I carried magazines instead of diapers.), I looked like I don't need a job at all, but if I were to have one it would be a very hip and cool editorial gig.

I'm more nervous now, wondering if I said anything stupid, than I was going in. I do want this job — it's different from and more creative than any job I've held before, and this employer scores very high on the hip'n'cool quotient, though they warned me it doesn't pay very well. (I never ask on a first interview — I think it's crass.)

And that's all I'm going to say about that. Coincidentally, this morning I learned about dooce and being dooced, and having been mildly dooced in a family context, I would hate to jeopardize a cool job over a silly little blog. Maybe a not-so-cool job.

(Heather's love letter to her 10-month-old daughter is worth reading. It's funny cuz it's true.)

I took some time off work yesterday and today. Against my better judgement, but I'm feeling pretty good about it at the moment. I'm at an impasse with the book I'm copyediting. It's formula-heavy and very boring. No matter how long I sat at this desk staring at this computer, I couldn't navigate my way through it. So I stepped away. I cleaned up the apartment. I had a bubblebath. I napped. I'm in a much better headspace now — relieved, too, with that interview out of the way — and ready to get to work (in just a minute).

I have a bad habit. I have many, actually, but one of them is to shop for things without buying anything. This does have some advantages, particularly as far as cost savings go. I tend to take mental note of what it is I'd like to acquire, and consider it carefully, mull it over in the comfort of my home, visualizing the potential acquisition within the context of my furnishings or wardrobe. Often, this exercise in itself satisfies the initial impulse, and the desire for the object vanishes. However, there are times I go back for an item, and the item is gone.

There's a book I'd spotted a couple months ago in the bargain stacks at Chapters (There. I said it. I called it by name even though I vowed never to do so, only ever referring to it obliquely as "the big-box bookstore."). When I went back for it, it was gone. Of course, I could pull the trade paperback off the shelf and pay full price for it (in which case, I'd march over to the nearest independent bookseller. I swear.), but that spoils the thrill of the bargain hunt. Stubbornly, I've checked other outlets, but I came up empty. But the online database for weeks has been telling me there's one copy left. And for weeks, I've been going back and poring over the stacks. The database could be wrong, but I keep checking, just in case.

Today, as if by magic, there it was. Maybe it's a sign. I'll go back for it tomorrow.

(Don't be silly. This time, I bought it on the spot.)

Monday, December 06, 2004

Book nerds

Jasper Fforde's The Well of Lost Plots was fun — literary pulp! — but nothing much happens. I expect it would've been more satisfying if I could've read the whole thing in one sitting some lazy Sunday morning in bed rather than in 5-minute snippets. Still, if you're a book nerd, there's much to enjoy. There just aren't enough pregnant heroes in the world, and I particularly like the conversation with Captain Nemo about the best coffee in the world.

(To avoid emitting outbursts regarding typos etc, which as a book nerd you're bound to make, please make sure your version is properly upgraded before you begin reading.)

There's a ton of end-of-year booklists out there and I love them! I'm always hoping to find something Brilliant and Important (although unputdownable or reasonably interesting will do) that I may have missed during the year.

I'd meant for this blog to be a place to record and review the books I read, but I never feel up to the task of organizing the project. (Similarly, I keep meaning to spruce the place up a bit, but then I figure it's about the content, not the pretty fonts and colours, and I get on with my day.) Really, who the hell cares what I'm reading and whether I liked it or not? Why the hell do I even want to document my reading? Is it just something book nerds can't help but do?

The other week I stumbled across a blog that includes a master list of all the books the blogger has read since 1979. (I'd started a list almost a decade ago for insurance purposes but never maintained it.) It was awe-inspiring and incredibly anal, and I was compelled to tell him so. He thanked me for the compliment and proceeded to tell me about the application he was hoping to build around it. What is it about book nerds?

Is this the quiet book lover's unassuming manner of advertisement, to surreptitiously suggest what you should be reading (to make you a better person, to make you smarter, to make you more like them)? Or a meaningless and self-proclaimed badge of honour?

There's a breed of book lover who loves to talk about books — not their stories and ideas, but the joy they take in the shopping for them, weight of them, smell of them. I'm one of those. When things are getting to be too much, I go hang out in a bookstore. The touch of them helps ground me.

Other bloggers are now posting year-end lists, and Michele asked about favourite reading spots the other day. It's got me examining my relationship with books in general. Time is not unlimited, yet I devote an insane amount of it to books — if not immersed in reading them, reading about them, planning their acquisition, blogging about them.

(Is there a Bookaholics Anonymous? Seriously. Where one's addiction isn't considered charming? I suppose most bookaholics wouldn't much care that books interfered with their social lives, but I wonder if it's been known to interfere with people holding down a job? Or are booklovers too smart to let that happen? Is there a book on the subject?)

Book nerd that I am, I still can't understand people who read while walking. I used to do that as a 7-year-old, reading Nancy Drew — I was always late for school and got in trouble often enough to curb the tendency. As a grown-up, I think you've got to be more assertive — read, or don't, or get to where you're going and then crack it open. Except when it's work, and you're reading a memo or report between offices. But you can't enjoy a good book that way, can you?

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I told you so

I told you so. I told you so. I told you so!

There. That's a bit better.

It's been a crappy weekend full of crap. My tongue is raw from biting it those many times I almost said "I told you so" but kindly refrained.

It has something to do with how the balcony door decides to blow open all by itself to let in the cold and the snow, and how we're going to fix this problem. Frankly, I no longer remember what it was I told that was "so" — but I needed to say it here to get it out of my system.

This weekend has included much coldness, more child-tending, more tension headaches, less sleep, and considerably less productive work than originally scheduled.

I'm mad that when Helena's home for a day during the week, it's assumed I can drop work, and then that my proclamations that I need to make up some work time go unheard. Well, they're not taken seriously, anyway. And then I get to feel guilty for being a spoilsport too, unable even to enjoy a movie rental and a bottle of wine.

I'm mad that I had to write a test for a job I'm applying for. Because nobody told me anything about writing a test and returning it Monday morning when we were in contact earlier this week to set up an interview. And mostly because I'm sick of this test-writing process. Makes me feel like I'm in high school. But I'm an adult and a professional. Nobody would ask me to write a test if I were applying for the position of chief financial officer.


But I really want this job. For a gazillion reasons. This job could be the coolest job ever.

And then the bank might give us a mortgage so we can buy a house and live happily ever after, and that would be very good too.

I'm mad that I'm getting so mad these last few days. I hate that side of myself. I never knew much about this side of myself at all till recently.

Last night, for the first time ever, I felt old. Not like a grown-up, but like what I imagine most women are trying to express when they obsess over their age. My hands, once beautiful and delicate, are dry and scaly and cracked. I'm not taking care of myself the way I should.

On the up side, Helena was exceptionally cuddly this evening, and spent more than an hour just dozing off in my arms, not wanting me to put her down. And even though this cuddling cut into my work time, the therapeutic benefits were vast and immeasurable.

A lock of hair

We took Helena for her first professional haircut yesterday.

For all the road rage (him), nagging (me), and comatose holiday shoppers we endured along the way, it was worth it.

I paid about $12 (plus tip), for which she got the most darling do before she knew what hit her.

I've tried trimming her bangs on a few occasions, but the kid is squirmy. I suppose it would help if we had a cool car chair complete with steering wheel and horn that I could pump to the appropriate height, and if she were surrounded by mirrors, and if there were cartoon-playing tvs strategically located to coax her head to a downward angle. No need for The Hairdresser's Husband to step in.

Plus they gave Helena a lollipop and a certificate featuring a lock of her hair. All in about 15 minutes.

I was pleased to note that this establishment also offers "daycare" for a not unreasonable $4 an hour, with discounts for multiple children. The other mall we dropped into yesterday had a free child-watching service, but I think it's only a seasonal offer to Christmas shoppers. It's not a perfect or even easy world for mothers, but somedays it seems that it's better than I expected.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Getting philosophical

I've just discovered The Philosophical Mother. I've not yet had time to read the current issue, but I'm struck by the spirit of the publication as captured in its tagline: Where the personal is still political.

A recent column lists some prevalent characteristics: you know you're a philosophical mother if...

Among my favourite points (or at least the ones that strike a chord today):

You are still awe-struck that you have become your child's greatest role model, mentor, and teacher.
You believe that motherhood and feminism can and should co-exist.
You can't believe that nobody told you how difficult it all would be.

Noticeably absent from the list is the compulsive need to blog, but I suppose that's covered by the reference to therapy.

All mothers are philosophical on some level. Although I had the benefit of Ethics, Logic, and Metaphysics classes, motherhood is a school unto itself.

As for the politics of motherhood, another blog had me all weepy this week, about not only childcare but seemingly trivial things like accessible public transportation and those other political things that it's sometimes easier to find a way around, like breastfeeding in public. This woman makes the point that "Mothers have a lot of needs and if those needs are quietly taken care of within the home, within the family — well then there is no need for systemic change."

In my Utopia, mothering is a job, with a SIC code and everything. And as a job, it is expected that training and tools will be required. I mean, you would be very shocked if two hours after drifting off to a much needed sleep you were jerked awake and told that you are now a lawyer and are expected in court in 10 minutes.

"But I don't know anything about the law and I'm bleeding and cannot even go to the bathroom", you would cry.

"Sorry, you are a lawyer now. You'll just need to figure it out" would be the response.

And yet.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

This way utopian elephants lie

I don't have more than a passing familiarity with Babar, and that comes from television. This is an odd realization to me actually, given my fascination with elephants.

This history and analysis of Babar, with references to specific tales, ensures that never again will I dismiss this regal behemoth.

The environment of Babar is that of the prosperous, well-educated, art-loving French bourgeoisie. Babar and his family go to the theater and hear concerts of both classical and popular music. They favor upper-middle-class sports: they sail, play tennis, swim and ski, practice yoga,[4] go to the races, and camp and hike in the mountains. Good manners are important, and so are good clothes.

Babar's is an ideal world, a kind of upper-middle-class French Utopia.

Then there are the rhinoceroses. I never knew about the rhinoceroses.

The most interesting though least agreeable alternative society in the Babar books is that of the rhinos... The rhinos' territory borders that of the elephants, but though they are Babar's neighbors they are often opposed to him. They are large, clumsy, and subject to fits of aggression and impulsive greed. They have bad manners and no apparent interest in art or music... They have very bad taste...: they like vulgar patterns and silly hats. Their king, Rataxes, wears loud-print suits or comic-opera uniforms.

The city of the rhinos is a large metropolis, with square brutalist public buildings... Rataxes' name is carved on each side of the palace steps, with a letter left off from the beginning or the end each time, so that it deconstructs into words that include TAXES, AXES, and RAT.

Did some academic have too much time on their hands, or is the world of Babar really this interesting? Why didn't I know about this sooner? Is this series unique in children's literature, or would all of those other books stand up to this kind of analysis? Should I run out and find some Babar to introduce to Helena?


"What puts the dys in dystopia?" And we answer: a denial of biology.

Part of human biology is, surprisingly for some, a yearning for culture. Although it might seem that biology and culture are antithetical, a capacity for culture is in fact one of humanity's most firmly established biological traits. It is thus notable that most literary dystopias include a suppression of the arts and humanities generally, and of literature in particular.

If you're going to define biology that way, it's really hard to come up with a counter example.

Science is fun!

Well the pressure's on to see that this day turns out as a tribute to the ever-charming Michele.

Although she herself suggested I enquire as to book shopping practices — we devour far more books than groceries, don't we? — a more scientific venture springs to light today.

The Guardian talks about a list compiled by New Scientist magazine of 100 Things to Do Before You Die.

For example:

  • extract your own DNA
  • measure the speed of light with chocolate
  • swim in a bioluminescent lake

(See the article for more examples.)

While any science experiment involving chocolate holds vast appeal, I'm considering adding "spend an afternoon in zero gravity" to my before-I-die list. You?

J-F, meanwhile, convinced that last week's vomitorama was evidence of radiation poisoning, is in the market for a geiger counter. Ebay offers a number of affordable ones, but the labelling's generally in Russian — he'd at least like an instruction manual in a language he can understand. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004


Someone's noticed that the grocery stores are disappearing. The regular ones. (Nobody's worried that the big boxes in the middle of nowhere are going to vanish overnight.)

It all adds up to a growing food paradox in this country. There are all kinds enormous stores opening up, and at the same time, smaller grocery stores are closing down — often in downtown cores. These were the stores that people could once easily get to.

I'm fortunate to live in a neighbourhood where I can remain blissfully ignorant of the phenomenon facing other urbanites across the nation.

We drive out to a big box supermarket about every two weeks — there's good prices to be had on some things and I like the convenience of the other services the store offers.

But there's a grocery store just around the corner from our apartment. And another one if you go in the other direction. And another just up head.

Throughout the week, if I need to pick up just a couple things, I head to one of those three grocery stores I shop at regularly. They're all within a 20-minute walk of home. There are two others within the same proscribed area that I don't frequent. I know of others, just a little further off and in the opposite direction of the one I usually take.

There is a grocery store across the street from Helena's daycare and J-F's office, in the heart of downtown. (I could walk there in 40 minutes if I wanted to.) There is another at the bus stop, which I stop at some days when I'm bringing Helena home on my own.

On top of all these grocery-shopping options there's a plethora of fruit and vegetable stores. And bakeries.

They're always busy.

Not every store has every brand, options may be limited in regard to some items, and pricing can be uneven, but living here I will never have to worry about being able to get out to do the groceries (unless I slip on a patch of ice and break my leg or develop a bizarre gastrointestinal condition that keeps me vomiting copiously, but even then I'm not above calling J-F at work with a list of things to pick up on his way home).

I love this neighbourhood. Where do you shop?

Memes explained

Well, not really. But if you think a meme is limited to those silly quizzes and lists that makes their way through blogworld, this interview with Richard Dawkins is a place to start educating yourself.

Another kind of selfish replicator to which Dawkins has called attention are "memes" — things like ideas, fashions, tunes, and so forth that multiply by leaping from mind to mind. When Dawkins introduced the meme concept a couple of decades ago, hopes were raised that the evolution of culture, or even of the human mind, might be explained as a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. But little has come of this project, even if the word "meme" does continue to get tossed around quite a bit by pretentious intellectuals. I asked Dawkins if he had cooled on the meme idea over the years.

"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."

The book Dawkins is currently promoting has little to do with memes, but if I were interviewing Richard Dawkins, I'm pretty sure I'd ask him about memes regardless.

Sitting on my bedside table for about the last 4 years: The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore, with a foreword by Richard Dawkins and nicely summarized at the Literary Saloon, so I don't really need to read it for myself. An excerpt is available online.

Part of the appeal of the idea of the meme is no doubt due to the word's etymology. Clearly it is derived from 2 words: "me" and "me." And everyone wants in on a good meme.