Thursday, December 29, 2005

Helena, the red-nosed reindeer

Helena's been pushing bedtime this week like there's no tomorrow.

Well after she's been put down, she calls from the bottom of the stairs that she needs to go the bathrooom. I go turn on the light on for her.

She crawls back into my bed, having relinquished her own room to her grandmother and this evening forsaking the little mattress on the floor. She wants me to stay with her. I tell her I'll join her shortly. She's having none of it. I try to negotiate. I end up crawling into bed (my bed) with her.

I don't know why I offer to sing. She wants the song of the p'tit reine. Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. I sing it softly, slowly. Four times. Helena's almost asleep. The fifth time I sing "Helena, the red-nosed reindeer." I don't know why. "Then one foggy Christmas eve, Santa came to say, 'Helena, with your nose so bright...'"

Her eyes pop open. "Helena? HELENA?" she demands confirmation of what she's heard. I nod. She cannot accept this. "Le chanson est fini," she informs me. "Va, allez." I leave without a word to rejoin the others.



So all was well with the world, my world, if a little chaotic. Mostly. The house was warm. My mother rested after travelling, my sister arrived. J-F was gracious as he can muster, and Helena charming beyond belief.

Christmas Eve day was hectic for all except me, remarkably. I would've liked to do a little last minute shopping, but there was no one on whom to foist the responsibility of toddler watch; alas, they all are left without the intended stocking stuffers: socks, fine chocolate, bookmarks — can Christmas be complete without these elements? — for the acquisition of which there'd simply been no time. Just as well. Other people went for groceries and wine and their last-minute presents. And I made myself a cup of tea, gave Helena a cookie, and thought to myself, Aw, fuckit. Whatever. Sip. Smile. There is peace in this. Que sera, sera.

J-F bought a new set of dishes. Something I'd thought about doing weeks previously, but had ultimately decided against. There wasn't the time or money to do it right, with thoughtful consideration of price-for-value and practicality, let alone taste and preference. So we would eat off unmatched dishes. So what? But J-F at the last minute felt the pressure of the judgment his family would surely pass. And while I didn't care, he obviously did, very much, and I exercised as much support as I could on his behalf in the face of my family trying to convince us it didn't matter. We have new, matching dishes; they're not half-bad.

Being of Polish extraction, I've always celebrated Christmas in "a Polish manner," meaning primarily that we observe the occasion on Christmas Eve, we enjoy a meatless feast, and we open presents afterwards. The evening also bears a strikingly somber mood, though in my adulthood I've learned that has less to do with the Polishness of the celebration than it does with the deep-seated melancholy my mother unveils for special occasions.

(Somehow, throughout the day I break two wineglasses and a (old) plate.)

We were ready. Fridge fully stocked. Presents wrapped, tree loaded. All the clan showered clean and nicely dressed. Food simmering. Yvonne will make us cocktails before we sit down to dinner. She takes a knife to the seemingly unopenable plastic bottle of Clamato and stabs her hand such that she fears she's severed the tendon of the thumb. Blood everywhere.

J-F sobers up fast to drive her to the hospital. My mother, for some reason I don't know — by my instinct this is absolutely the wrong and counterproductive thing to do — decides to go with them. I'm left on toddler-watch, and kitchen-duty clean-up.

Blood. Everywhere. I throw out a dozen pierogi, a plate of bread, and the tomato and onion that were prepped for cooking fish, all of which were uncovered at the time of the incident. Red icecubes on the counter. I repackage herbs and various breads in clean — unspattered — cellophane. I scrub and bleach. I regret not taking pictures. I notice the differences between spatter and transfer. I trace my sister's path through the kitchen, the trajectory of her hand as she jerked it, shook it, raised it above her head.

The toddler wants to watch her movie, the DVD a gift from the daycare, documenting music classes, special visitors, and various outings (to the library, strolling the neighbourhood). I'm a little sad we can't watch it together, but there will be time for that, and it keeps her singing and away from the kitchen.

I've barely finished cleaning, I thought, and had time to pour a glass of wine as they return from the hospital. In the morning I find one remaining cupboard face I'd neglected to wipe down.

Dinner very late. Toddler very cranky. Sister has 5 stitches and is preferring alcohol to painkillers. Mother more anxious, agitated, than melancholy. J-F is more concerned for the following day's proceedings, not quite fully realizing that it's the day at hand that holds the weight of import in my family. But dinner is great.

Helena knows we're about to open presents. We all take a breather, a cigarette, brush our teeth, clear the table. I hear the rip of giftwrap from the next room and assume someone is taking advantage of a private moment. Helena soon pitter-patters into the kitchen exclaiming excitedly over her cadeau, un livre, how heavy it is. I see that it's Doris Lessing's Time Bites she wields, and think to myself, Hmmm. She's reluctant to relinquish it me, it's rightful new owner. But she does so when she realizes she can seize this opportunity to run for the tree and open more cadeaux. They're not quite all for her, and it doesn't matter.

Then there was Christmas Day, and J-F's family descended upon us, and it was fine. The turkey was cooked to near perfection (upside down). J-F made stuffing, cuz he really wanted to make stuffing. I "invented" some carrots with cranberries, which I'd resolved if reception were poor to blame on Jamie Oliver, even tho' he has nothing to do with it, but nevermind — they were delicious.

We drank.

There were a million incidents, words, glances. But really, none of it matters.

My mom spent Boxing Day in bed, still battling the effects of a day's travel, or a new cold. She tires easily. Awful daughter that I am and ever suspicious of people's motivations, I wonder how much of this behaviour is psychosomatic. (Sshhh, I didn't say that out loud.)

Our little nuclear unit pays a visit to the grand patriarch (J-F's grandfather).

The women spend an afternoon shopping.

All without incident. None of it's exactly easy, or normal, but it could be so much worse. I know that.

It's Christmas; what's the worst that could happen?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Week in review

Monday: bad parenting but with Christmas spirit
Everything off schedule. Still baking cookies when J-F and Helena arrive home. Helena decides to help, cuz it's just like pressing shapes out of PlayDoh after all, and this is wonderfully enjoyable and not nearly as messy as I'd anticipated. She loses interest only when the last sheet goes into the oven.

Helena's supper consists of cookies, chocolate, and some cookies for dessert. It takes her a little while to settle down for the night.

Tuesday: J-F's birthday
Passed almost unnoticed. He charges me with the task of dropping off the kid at daycare. Leaves message for me to pick up Helena, which I receive with just minutes to spare, rushing from one place to the next, checking the sofa for spare change for metro fare, and dropping dinner preparation. But he manages to pick up Helena after all, without telling me, leaving the premises barely minutes before I arrive. Minorly freaked out, majorly pissed off.

J-F enjoyed his office Christmas luncheon that day. Too satiated to further indulge in a properly celabratory birthday dinner. Too tired to enjoy each other's company.

Wednesday: parenting fuck-up number gazillion
Helena arrives at daycare fully clothed. But it's pyjama day. Fortunately, there are some extra communal pyjamas on site, which Helena happily changes into. When J-F called to tell me, I burst into tears. (I'd misunderstood the memo — damn my French — thinking pyjamas were reserved for "after-hours," during the cinq-a-sept wine and cheese for parents, which we'd decided not to attend.) I still tear up thinking about it.

Wednesday eve
J-F's mom arrives with our Christmas present — a central vacuuming system, which I simply cannot feel excited about, and I fear all my thanks sound insincere (cuz really they are). We don't even have any carpets. And really, it could've waited a week or two, but what's a couple extra gazillion boxes in the house when there's already an unassembled bedroom suite scattered about and houseguests due to arrive the following day.

The power is flickering off and on.

We wake up to cold. Cold! Because the power's off and our heating is electric. Only, weirdly, some lights are working, and even weirder, the computer is fine. But the phone is dead.

Hours later, Hydro Quebec trucks arrive. All the power goes off, which we take as a good sign, even though there are stacks of laundry and more baking to do. Phone service is back, whch compensates a little for lack of internet. Finally, power is restored, for about 20 minutes, long enough to get the next queued load fully wet. The electric cable that hangs across the street explodes, its two halves swinging back to their respective sides in full flame. I call 911.

J-F's cold, by the way, has knocked him flat on his ass, keeping him home from work and underfoot in our cold house. It's too dark to clean the bathrooms properly.

My mother comes to town, more or less according to schedule, even though she failed to meet her sister at the transfer point, causing all of us to wonder: how long before we file a missing person's report? She arrives more or less in one piece, though earlier in the week it was determined that the pain in her side she's been complaining about is in fact a fractured rib.

She arrives to our dark and now very cold house. Welcome to Montreal, Mom. So how do you like the condo?

Power is restored by about 10. Thank gawd.

The week's highlights
Stomping my feet, when I enter any building, even when not warranted.
Another shawarma at another food court.
The winter coat I bought for myself while I should've been shopping for presents for other people.
Helena's continued thrall with the Christmas tree.
J-F took Helena to the office this morning!
My mother seems more or less OK, with everything!
My sister arrives tonight!

And the best part:

Monday, December 19, 2005

What we have

We have a tree! Retrieved Saturday morning, pulled home on sled. By evening, Helena very excited about decorating it. Does not grok my protestations that she allow me to string lights before she hangs ornaments. Drags stepstool from bathroom to living room so she can reach higher branches. Proceeds to hang as many decorations as possible on the same, but high, branch.

(After she went to bed I redistributed these for balance, though I'm now a little sorry I did. I realize it's not my tree anymore. I had mine, with my favoured colours, styles, etc, for a couple years, but realistically, the tree won't be mine again till Helena moves out, assuming my preferences will still be strong enough to trump J-F's. Till then Helena hangs every ornament every well-meaning person bestows upon her — the tacky bears, and the Santas, and the outrageously huge stuffed bird — and I smile with her, admitting that a couple of the Santas are in fact rather artsy and unique.)

Last year Helena poked and pulled and sproing-ed and moved and dropped and broke a million ornaments. This year she's pretty happy to let the creation stand, except for one garland she keeps fussing with. I'm tempted to remove it altogether but I'm rather succumbing to the charm of her mutterings: "This way, this way... that way, around, around, around, comme ca!"

I fell in love with a beautiful and unusual starlike tree topper the other day, but decided it was a little too extravagant a purchase to be considering this year. Our tree remains topped by the traditional white Christmas, um, butterfly. And this fact makes me smile. Butterfly!

We have a bedroom suite! It arrived ahead of schedule, and delivery arrangements were efficient. It has yet to be assembled, but that can wait. I'm sleeping better already. We don't have a sofabed for my sister, but I don't care.

We have Christmas cookies! Two kinds! And they're delicious! I think I can manage another batch, something chocolatey, tomorrow.

We have an angel of a daughter! This morning I heard J-F checking in on her on his way to shower. She murmured drowsily that she just wanted to stay where she was for a few minutes. Soon after, she's peeking in on me. "Je vais faire un bisou et calin pour toi." She clambers through the bedding to hug me tight and plant a big, wet smooch on my cheek. We have waffles for breakfast.

Outrageous credulity in a skeptical age

Umberto Eco and the meaning of Chistmas:
I was raised as a Catholic, and although I have abandoned the Church, this December, as usual, I will be putting together a Christmas crib for my grandson. We'll construct it together — as my father did with me when I was a boy. I have profound respect for the Christian traditions — which, as rituals for coping with death, still make more sense than their purely commercial alternatives.

I think I agree with Joyce's lapsed Catholic hero in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?" The religious celebration of Christmas is at least a clear and coherent absurdity. The commercial celebration is not even that.

(Via Out of the Woods Now.)

Friday, December 16, 2005

More snow than you can shake a stick at

How the snow stormed down on us this morning! But our little family braved the elements (well, our vehicle did) and made it safely and on time for Helena's music-course end-of-term extravaganza — and what a spectacle!

As has been her practice for the last couple weeks when I drop her off, as soon as we cross the threshold of her classroom, Helena ducks under my coat. This schtick has been a real hit with her classmates. Before you can say "Helena, get out of there," my caboose has attached to it a 5-toddler train.

Music class itself is chaos. This year at least it's billed as something of a parent-participation special workshop event, not a "recital." We sing a couple songs, bang out some rhythms with various percussive instruments, and dance. That is, the grown-ups do. The kids hide in the bathroom, show off their shoes to each other, bark like dogs, meow like kittens, and butt heads like mountain goats. Toward the end of the dance segment, Helena inspires the lot of them to treat me as a maypole.

J-F and I are surprised to find that we're the only parents there (though there were a few absentees due to snow). This puts my mind at ease, finally, regarding the theatre fiasco of last spring. The irony of our being in attendance is that Helena spends most of the half-hour attached to my leg and not participating at all.

At the end of "class," they each receive a sticker on their record of participation, for which there is more enthusiasm than any thus far mustered, and spirited discussion regarding who has which different stickers follows.

And then I go Christmas shopping! And I buy a few things! I feel in control again — see, I just needed to write it down to help it sort itself out — this Christmas thing, certainly the shopping part, isn't so hard! I'm inspired! I know what to get for people! And the best part is I stop at a food court for lunch and have a shawarma — I've been craving one for weeks, and it's so much better after having had to wait for it — delicious!

The snow has stopped. Some people in the neighbourhood may have trouble finding their cars.

My angel enjoys hot chocolate after a busy day.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Take a deep breath

One step forward, two steps back.

There was a day at the end of November I panicked. Not directly regarding Christmas — I didn't see the point in worrying over gift shopping or food preparations — but it had everything to do with matters indirectly related to the holidays and the happy coincidence that people would be descending on our household. I fretted that my mother would not like the condo we now call home. That we are in many ways not yet entirely settled in our new home, that it's disorganized and not exactly fully furnished. These are things I can live with, have been living with, but can my mother live with them, even if only for a few days?

I'd been wondering why, at the end of November, would people start worrying? What's there to worry about? Christmas is coming — what joy! And others kindly reassured me that I was right — this, that, and the other would get done. I'd forgotten about this, that, and the other.

For one day at the end of November, I truly panicked. Where would my mother sleep? Where will my sister sleep? My mother will take Helena's room — really, she's of an age she'd like a room, with a closet and drawers, she's too old to live out of a suitcase being shuffled from one corner of the house to another, waiting for the bathroom to be free and for the household to settle down so she can sleep someplace without a door amid its traffic — now where will Helena sleep? Will we really find the time and money to buy a sofabed before my sister is again relegated to the current only couch, overstuffed and just a little too short? Is it true that my brother is actually considering joining us? Where will he sleep? Since when does he even like Christmas anyway? Is it possible that this would be the year he chooses to show up on time and sober for dinner? He hates Christmas. If he doesn't come, will my mother spend days wringing her hands over "poor Mark, alone for Christmas"?

For one day I panicked. Better to get the panicking over and done with, out of the way. Pretty lucky, I thought, if that's all the worrying I have to do and it inspired me to take charge, organize, do things.

One day's panic was fed by sickness. Helena's cold had her feverish for a weekend and home from daycare for 2 days. The same cold put me to bed for 2 more days. And then J-F, 4 days and counting. Me trying to DO things with people underfoot and not yet feeling 100% is less than 100% effective. Downright silly, even. Cleaning bathrooms and doing laundry, every day trying to clear an extra corner, but barely maintaining status quo. I should water the plants before they die.

I bought a carpet for the entranceway. It will define the space better than a dirty puddle. I cleared a spot for a tree, retrieved the Christmas-tree stand from J-F's mother's basement. We must get a tree. I bought hooks to fasten to doors for hanging bathrobes. I ordered a bedroom suite. Stupid. I should've ordered it weeks ago, but finances were confused, and I waited for that credit card to be cleared up, and then it was out of stock, and I panicked, but it's done now, and what the hell was I thinking, having bedroom furniture delivered just before Christmas, we won't have time to assemble it, there won't be room for extra boxes, and certainly my mother won't benefit from this, but dammit I want a grown-up bedroom, we deserve one, how nice it'll be to have a bedroom one wants to spend time in, though I doubt we'll want to during the holidays if it's full of extra furniture and boxes, and then we have to get rid of the futon, at least its base, unless we buy another futon mattress, then houseguests can sleep on it, if we can make it fit in the family room — I doubt it.

And the poor kitty-cat who stands meowing at our back door, every day for a week now, he comes in the evening and meows frantically. The second night we put food and water out for him, but he looks healthy, has a collar, young but not a kitten anymore, we think he's a fixed male, he must have a home, but the nights are cold and there he is meowing plaintively, so we put down some blankets and left the door open to our outdoor storage area. Another day passed — we don't see him during the day — and there was hope he belonged to someone in our building who accidentally locked him out when she went away for the weekend, but she returned and her cats are in fact accounted for. We've let him inside a couple times, but he's frantic and wants out, so we let him out thinking he'll go home, but he paces a little and runs off through the snow and then he's back and meowing and cold. Poor kitty. We may have to take him in, but we'd have to ensure he's healthy; I worry for Helena — we don't know his temperament — and for our cat, but he seems to worry for the stranger too, watching him through the window. He's looking thinner, and cold.

Daycare was closed yesterday, workers are striking, bless them, they have difficult jobs, so Helena and I bundled up and went to the park. The playground is surrounded by a moat of ice, soon to be a skating rink, treacherous to cross; someday soon Helena will learn it's not worth it to go on the slides at the playground when it's easier to slide down the snowy hills that surround it whether in her sled or on her bottom. But we did not go Christmas shopping because my planned excursions were either too long and I feared she would melt down not being able to run off every 10 minutes or too short and I dreaded bundling and unbundling the both of us more than the once — I might melt down and have nowhere to run. And we did not bake. But I'd bought her a snow shovel at the dollar store, for a dollar, and such joy it brings, Christmas could be so simple, but it rarely is.

What was I thinking planning to bake Christmas cookies with Helena? She's got ants in her pants, won't stick with anything for more than 10 minutes at a time. I've started a million times and finally ingredients and supplies are assembled and ready to go, but there is no window of time long enough to actually do anything with it. Maybe this afternoon, and I'll wait another year before including her in this tradition.

Now there's but one week left before family arrives, and there are no presents, no groceries, no baked goods, no sofabed, and I've cooked turkey only twice in my life but never for 10 people, what the hell else do we serve for dinner? and oh my god we don't even have 10 chairs, and our kitchen-dining table barely seats 6 and it's on the verge of collapsing, we should've purchased a new table instead of a stupid bedroom set, really we should've bought both, and months ago, using the money my mother gave me for a housewarming present instead of using it to pay municipal taxes, and damn that stupid job I can't invoice for yet, it was done weeks ago except for that one bit I'm still waiting for, an hour's work maybe, but even if those loose ends are tied up this week I doubt I'll be paid before Christmas.

Tomorrow morning is Helena's music "recital" which will be good for a few laughs, maybe I can go shopping directly afterwards, and I should mail some Christmas cards today, but boy is this place ever a mess, and I can't delegate chores to J-F when he's home sick, well, I can, but they won't get done unless I do them myself, I'll make some soup, he'll make a big mess in the kitchen, and there are no quiet corners to retreat to, if only we had a peaceful grown-up bedroom, and I could stay in bed for a morning and rest, not a recuperative sleep of the sick, but a self-indulgent, luxurious lie-in with a good book, just for an hour or two.

One day's panic has grown into a prolonged and surreptitious-in-its-effects mindfuck, conspiring even to keep me from writing it down, sorting it out.

Three steps forward, two steps back.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gaiman's tricks

A couple weeks ago I read Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

However, the book also has a lot of problems that I'm unable to let go of. So.

First, the title. I hate the title. If it weren't for that I'd received it as a gift, I may not have gotten 'round to reading it. I knew Gaiman had a new book out in the vein of American Gods, which I'd liked well enough, but the title was enough to turn me away from reading any reviews of it fully.

Sounds like "nancy boys." Even once I understood the title, whenever I picked up the book to continue reading I'd find myself thinking, "He's not really a nancy boy. Well, maybe kinda. At least the other one isn't, is he?" This is distracting — really, there should be no nancy-boy thoughts crossing my mind whatsoever.

The other immediate association I made (and here I admit that my thought processes are by no means representative of the neural networks of the population at large) concerning the title was that it is a cross between Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and though the novel's allegedly for adults, I suspected that at its heart might be a juvenile mystery better suited for 7-year-olds, which I'd have little interest in reading, particularly if it insisted on mocking or demeaning its protagonists as nancy boys.

I know better now, but I think Gaiman and his marketing people might've anticipated such blocks in the reading public and come up with something a little more something and a little less something else, like, I dunno, Sons of American Gods.

Second, it's pretty funny. Yes, that's mostly a good thing. But sometimes it sounds forced, like Gaimam's trying too hard to sound like Douglas Adams. I'd mentally earmarked a couple examples. Of course, I'm unable to retrieve them now, and my point is pretty much lost in paraphrasing. One of these examples had something hanging in the air in exactly the way that bricks, or something similarly heavy and brick-like, don't. Which sounded awfully familiar.

Maybe he's not trying to sound like anyone at all, maybe these mechanisms of language to convey humour are more common among the British than I know. It just didn't always sound . . . natural, or easy.

Third, things wind up a little too conveniently. Gaiman circumvents the implausibility argument by incorporating a philosophy of coincidence into the narration's worldview, about three-quarters of the way through the novel:
It is a small world. You do not have to live in it particularly long to learn that for yourself. There is a theory that, in the whole world, there are only five hundred real people (the cast, as it were; all the rest of the people in the world, the theory suggests, are extras) and what is more, they all know each other. And it's true, or true as far as it goes. In reality the world is made of thousands upon thousands of groups of about five hundred people, all of whom will spend their lives bumping into each other, trying to avoid each other, and discovering each other in the same unlikely teashop in Vancouver. There is an unavoidability to this process. It's not even coincidence. It's just the way the world works, with no regard for individuals or for propriety.

Well, that makes all the coincidence to follow OK then? Too obvious. Not the seamless work of a craftsman. Trying to mitigate the shortcomings by fessing up to them, or to score extra points by showing your work.

Fourth. Gaiman talks a little about Anansi Boys in a recent interview:
I could do stuff that isn't mythic, but I love mythic stuff. I love playing with gods, I love playing with myths. A lot of it has to do with that they're the basic places stories come from. They're the clay that you make the bricks out of. I just like digging around in the clay. I think the thing I was happiest about with Anansi Boys was, I got to do a story that was about stories, about storytelling, about the power of myths, and about how we create our own stories. I felt like I'd managed to do it in such a way where someone could read the entire book and never notice what it had been about — just enjoyed spending time with Fat Charlie and all these characters.

Insofar as I never noticed what it'd been about and just enjoyed spending time with the characters, Gaiman has succeeded. Gaiman did not manage to do it through literary craftsmanship, however. One barely notices these protomythic metastory moments only because they are spectacularly weak, and I rather skimmed over them to hurry past.

Simply, Gaiman doesn't have the voice, the tone, at least in this medium, to tell myths. He tells a good story, but of the kind that's a long, rambling joke, or a really neat anecdote regarding the events of last weekend, but he doesn't muster the sense of import or wisdom or gravity most myths, or gods, merit. This may be his appeal to many people, a breath of fresh air in the retelling, the popularizing of myths. But it doesn't entirely wash with me. He gets away with it here because his subject is a trickster god (previously, cuz the gods were "American," modern, laidback), one big cosmic joke.

I was a little surprised to see this book on one of the year-end best fiction lists. I'm surprised also that I actually liked the book, given how much of the experience of reading it was given over to noting its problems. (Diana recently similarly discussed how distracting it is to "notice" the writing. The worth of the book then must be in something other than the writing.)

Despite my greviances, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a light diversion. I imagine it will someday be a paperback very successful in airports. It has cross-genre appeal (fantasy, mystery, a little romance and travel adventure), a unique premise, and most of the stabs at humour strike their mark.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The mythic

The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe
I've been to Narnia, and it was magical.

On returning home I immediately reached for my ratty old paperback. The film is remarkably faithful. The opening sequences are not original to the novel but add substantial dimension to the young characters.

We'd left the theater with a few questions, myself not having read the Chronicles for quite a few years and J-F not knowing them at all.

One change for the worse: On finding Aslan dead, Lucy is tempted to try her healing potion on him but Susan stops her, saying, "it's too late." Who wouldn't try it anyway? Better in the book, that Lucy has completely forgotten she is in possession of such an elixir until she is reminded to make herself useful with it.

The prevalent question in my mind: is the witch human? I found the answer in the text:
"She'd like us to believe it," said Mr Beaver, "and it's on that that she bases her claim to be Queen. But she's no Daughter of Eve. She comes of your father Adam's" — (here Mr Beaver bowed) — "your father Adam's first wife, her they called Lilith. And she was one of the Jinn. That's what she comes from on one side. And on the other she comes from the giants. No, no, there isn't a drop of human blood in the Witch."

(I first came across mention of Lilith in Michael Moorcock's The Warhound and the World's Pain, and for some time was intent on researching her origins, her myths, but was frustrated by dead ends at every turn. Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but Lilith ate of the tree of life, gaining immortality, preserved by feasting on children. How do I know this? I read it somewhere, but am unable to confirm it now. I've filled in some blanks, assumed some things to be "true," and have created my own mythology of her.)

J-F had questions about the prophecies, assuming shortcuts had been taken with this backstory. In fact the prophecies are not much fleshed out in the novel. As in the film, there are only the merest hints as to the Deep Magic of the place.

This indicates to me the deep magic of the chronicles themselves, of the child's imagination, and the reader's leap of faith — that as child reader I filled in the blanks, buying into the aura of the mythology without having to know its details.

As for the Christian allegory, I had trouble seeing it then, and I still don't think it's obvious.

The New Yorker on Narnia:
For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

Penelope, Odysseus, and the hanged maidens
Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad is disappointing. It's barely a sketch of a story. Penelope is certainly never developed sufficiently to be sympathetic. It's a stringing together of what-ifs and don't-you-thinks and maybe-it-transpired-this ways, but it never fulfills its marketed promise to tell the hardship of the faithful wife holding the fort while her adventurer husband goes off to war and fails to return for 20 years. It's not a window on domestic drudgery.

I do not have the benefit of having read the Odyssey, but Atwood's acknowledgements led me to Robert Graves' Greek Myths, which conveniently does sit on my shelf. References to Penelope are scant, so while it's a wonder that Atwood could fashion any story at all, I wonder that she didn't take freer reign.

(Myths become myths only after we've filled in the blanks, fleshed out the outlines.)

I have to agree:
This marvelous material seems not to have been metabolized by Atwood's imagination, and the result is merely a riff on a better story that comes dangerously close to being a spoof. Most fatally, the maids, whose tragic end in the "Odyssey" is what in part inspired Atwood to choose this story, also remain mere outlines of characters.

The minotaur
Of all the book in the Myths project, I most look forward to Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror:
His text is structured as an Internet chat room, where several people discuss the strange experiment in which they have landed. Each of them has been presented with a labyrinth, but the details of these mazes vary widely, from a Gothic cathedral to a table with a loaded gun on it. It gradually becomes clear that the whole thing may be happening in the Minotaur's mind. The ending turns everything upside down in trademark Pelevin style.

I read Pelevin's Homo Zapiens a few years ago. All I can muster to say about that book is that it's, well, pretty fucked up.
For two reasons, it is disturbing to think that Western readers may regard Pelevin as Russia's most representative writer. First, Pelevin does not readily distinguish between things as they are and his arcane elaborations. A naive reader may confuse his phantasmagoric ravings for true descriptions of Russian reality; this reader will never talk to any Russian again without a burning desire to run for his life. Second, Pelevin might actually be Russia's most representative writer.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What I believe but cannot prove

"What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?"

The question and the responses it generated were reported on in January, and I referred to it a couple times then.

Today Maud Newton raises the question again and points out Ian McEwan's answer. It would seem that more responses have trickled in over the course of the year, and so I perused them over morning coffee.

Timothy Taylor:
"All your life you live so close to the truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque" wrote Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Something I believe is true even though I cannot prove it, is that both cannibalism and slavery were prevalent in human prehistory.

Jesse Bering:
The epistemological problem of knowing what it is "like" to be dead can never be resolved.

It seems that the default cognitive stance is reasoning that human minds are immortal; the steady accretion of scientific facts may throw off this stance a bit, but, as Unamuno found out, even science cannot answer the "big" question. Don't get me wrong. Like Unamuno, I don't believe in the afterlife. Recent findings have led me to believe that it's all a cognitive illusion churned up by a psychological system specially designed to think about unobservable minds. The soul is distinctly human all right. Without our evolved capacity to reason about minds, the soul would never have been. But in this case, the proof isn't in the empirical pudding. It can't be. It's death we're talking about, after all.

Tom Stoppard:
Rosencrantz: Do you ever think of youself actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?
Guildenstern: No.
Ros: Nor do I, really . . . It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead . . . which should make a difference . . . shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air — you'd wake up dead, for a start and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. That's the bit I don't like, frankly That's why I don't think of it . . .
(Guil stirs restlessly, pulling his cloak round him.)
Because you'd be helpless, wouldn't you? Stuffed in a box like that, I mean you'd be in there for ever. Even taking into account the fact that you're dead, really . . . ask yourself, if I asked you straight off — I'm going to stuff you in this box now, would rather be alive or dead?
Naturally, you'd prefer to be alive. Life in a box is better than no life at all. I expect. You'd have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking — well, at least I'm not dead!

Leonard Susskind:
If I were to flip a coin a million times I'd be damn sure I wasn't going to get all heads. I'm not a betting man but I'd be so sure that I'd bet my life or my soul. I'd even go the whole way and bet a year's salary. I'm absolutely certain the laws of large numbers—probability theory—will work and protect me. All of science is based on it. But, I can't prove it and I don't really know why it works. That may be the reason why Einstein said, "God doesn't play dice." It probably is.

Tom Stoppard:
Guildenstern: It must be indicative of something, besides the redistribution of wealth. (He muses.) List of possible explanations.
. . .
Four. A spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually (He spins one) is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does. (It does.)

What I believe to be true but cannot prove is that each of the respondents' beliefs (as generated by World Question 2005) was anticipated by and explored within Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

A few more beliefs:
Rudy Rucker: "Reality is a novel."
Carlo Rovelli: "Time does not exist."

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tis the season

The cold
I sent Helena to daycare this morning even though she's still coughing, but just a bit, because I knew I wouldn't be any good to her today. Surprise! — now I have a really bad cold and I feel shitty. I should be climbing back into bed, but I suspect I'll just sit here alternately rambling and staring into the void for a couple hours.

I really enjoy Play-Doh. If I could get a job playing with Play-Doh all day, I'd be in heaven. Sometimes I don't wash my hands after playing with it so that the smell can linger with me a while longer.

A movie
We don't watch many video cassettes any more. We've finally replaced our copy of The Big Lebowski with a DVD, so that leaves the VCR for the almost exclusive viewing of a couple children's videos, namely Charlotte's Web and Fantasia. Every time I insert a video it's a leap of faith that the machine will eject it (in fact, it only does so if the tape plays to the end and auto-rewinds; button pushing is fruitless).

Helena was rummaging through the "media" drawer and found a copy of The Nutcracker Prince.

It's a sweet little animated film based on E.T.A. Hoffman's story of "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and featuring the voice talents of Megan Follows and Kiefer Sutherland. Also, you'll see my name in the credits.

The summer I should've been more ambitious I opted instead to work long, grave-shift hours at the animation studio to paint cels. Paint by number, essentially. Weird job, really, but a lot of fun. My little window onto animation art and industry.

I've always had a fondness for this film, but watching it with Helena I'm coming to really like it.

Random weird things

About me. Because Martha wants to know. Personally, I don't think her random facts are weird at all, except for being able to write backwards with her non-dominant hand.

1. I hate talking on the phone. Hate it. To anybody, but especially for business with strangers.

2. I hate Disney, on principle, but I'm a bit of a hypocrite about it. When I learned I was pregnant it seemed like a good excuse to purchase a copy of The Aristocats. And Mary Poppins is a quality production. And I'm not too upset by the fact that we own Bambi. And I wouldn't mind getting my hands on Robin Hood ,or Alice in Wonderland. And I can't wait to see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But I will never, ever go to Disneyland or Disneyworld or EuroDisney or any other Disney theme park (unless the primary theme of that park is cryogenics).

3. As a small child (maybe 4) I used to bite my toenails. Because I could. Not to the point of ugly, but just to trim them. My mother even took me to the family doctor about this behaviour. I don't remember when or why I stopped.

4. I'm able to pour liquid measures of exactly a cup or a half cup without paying attention. If I'm off, I must be coming down with something.

5. I liked to collect odd travel mementoes — something of personal meaning to me, or something representative of the place that couldn't be reproduced for a gift shop. So I have a vial, a film cannister, of earth from Birkenau. It weirds me out just to think about it, but I'm afraid to get rid of it.

6. I don't know how to drive. But I don't have a phobia about getting behind the wheel. For years I never had the opportunity to learn, then for several years more I didn't feel the need. Now I'm just having trouble getting around to it.

7. I hate Joseph Conrad. And this is probably weird only to me, and only because it'd been suggested to me that I ought to like him by a high school teacher I respected.

8. I love fresh bedsheets. If it weren't me doing the laundering and changing, I'd insist on having fresh bedsheets every day.

9. Most people think I love coffee. I fix espresso-based beverages for myself every morning, and would probably die without them, but it's very rare that I find a cup of regular coffee tasty. Tea I drink only if there's lemon available, and I prefer it in a clear glass.

10. I love studying languages but hate speaking them (including the language I was raised in, and even English) for fear of making mistakes.

Weird enough for ya?

If you want to share your weirdnesses, consider yourself tagged.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Revisiting a terrorist

Jane Rogers' impressions on reading and rereading Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist are very similar to my own (though I read it just the once).

I too was struck by the banality of Alice, her need to make a home for her comrades, take care of their daily requirements for housing and food, without any obvious sense of, or even interest in, the big picture and greater purpose for which they were striving; seemingly her only motivation is crumbs of love from Jasper, "permission to put her sleeping bag along the same wall as his."

[Lessing's] terrorists are contaminated by the muddle of being human, have parents they rebel against, have suffered injustices, have maternal impulses and physical needs, and a burning need for identity and recognition. This is not to suggest for a moment that Lessing demands sympathy for her characters; this is no touchy-feely book to help us understand the poor things who are driven to such extremes. It is a witty and furious book, angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without. It shows us people who commit an evil act and it shows how that evil springs out of our own society. It connects us to it, while condemning it. It makes any kind of complacency impossible.

I happened to be reading this book in September of 2001.


Helena's been sick all weekend and is home with me today. Fever and a cold. Her voice is raspy. She's been napping less than usual but is in remarkably good spirits.

One of Helena's favourite games is "naptime," where we take turns tucking each other in, preparing bottles or changing diapers or otherwise fussing over each other.

Here's one of the stories she "read" to me this weekend (which book doesn't have many illustrations):

Il etait une fois Winnie-the-Pooh. Ici, c'est Winnie-the-Pooh. Tout a coup . . . [dramatic pause while turning the page] . . .
c'est Eeyore.
Tourne the page . . . et patapouf!
C'est fini.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Metaphysics and the toddler mind

Yesterday, Helena and I went for a walk after supper.

At the end of our street is an elementary school. We stopped to look at all the lovely animal pictures taped up in the windows, drawn by, I'm guessing, 6-year-olds.

Helena is obviously more tapped into the mind of the child artist than I am. She did a much better job of identifying the creatures depicted than I did, according to the teacher's labels.

What is essential to the zebra, from the toddler's perspective, is black and white striping. Not equine features or discernible number of legs. Not its proportion relative to its surroundings. Its zebra-ness is black and white.

Similarly, the tiger was not recognizably feline. No ears, no semblance of whiskers or fur. A bunny-like tail. A pleasantly suburban environment, over which it towered. But orange-and-black stripes is tiger.

What is essential to the giraffe is "tall." Lion has haloed face.

They all looked like blobby elephants to me.

A collective of nouns

"a quantum of cats"
— Jasper Fforde, in The Big Over Easy

(I think it's beautiful, and I intend to use it.)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Colouring our world

Helena's elephant
Of which she is most proud. And so am I (poor-quality scan not-withstanding).

Of her recent work, I'd have to say this is the one that most looks like what she says it is.

She draws a lot of portraits of me. (Bear in mind, the picture at right is not of me. It's an elephant. No, I'm not an elephant. What follows is an anecdote regarding pictures of me, not elephants.) They (portraits of me) generally include a roundish head, with 2 eyes, 2 ears, etc, but her execution has a rather cubist perspective. Amazingly, she always knows (or remembers) which way is up. Weirdly, she realized that in one of yesterday's pictures she'd omitted one of my arms (the right one), and so proceeded to draw it in in the bottom right corner (under my left foot).

I suspect that in this realm of development, Helena may be a little behind average. (Am I allowed to say that, as a mother?)

Isabella's dragon
This has nothing to do with anything, but I thought you'd like to know: Jamie Oliver puts horseradish in his mashed potatoes, and this is an excellent idea. Boring potatoes? Meet adventurous horseradish. Delicious.

My own crayoning skills have come a long way, no?

Faking it

The very long preamble
I wrote most of this preamble days ago, and most of what's below weeks ago, on the tail of having closed the book (My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey), satisfied. I've grown increasingly dissatisfied since, however; not with the novel itself but with my ability to write about it, or any novel, along with the increasing awareness of my inability to read critically and in an informed way.

I previously noted that I do not review books, let alone critically analyze them; rather I allow myself to respond to them. (Nor do I see the point in writing a simple book report — basic plots are readily divined from book jacket blurbs, and the general public responses to books are widely known.)

Although I've been reading forever, and was exposed to some wonderful literature in high school and university, I can't say I've studied literature in any meaningful way. In university I took the required first-year English course — I remember Kafka's Metamorphosis; also Conrad's Heart of Darkness was on the reading list, but I have yet to finish it. I took a course on Utopian/Dystopian Fiction, because I love the genre. Also, a poetry workshop, conducted by Seymour Mayne, in which we wore black turtlenecks and berets — I don't recall on what basis I was accepted (a poem of heartbreak, no doubt), and my only inspiration for being there was the idea of being a poet. And Modern British Poetry, which was almost exclusively about The Waste Land, and for which I'm very, very grateful. Later, a course in 19th century Russian lit, in vague hopes of satisfying some yearning to connect to my Eastern European roots. That is all.

I didn't see the point in studying literature. This is something I do anyway, I thought, reading all the time. Of course, I was wrong.

It takes a long time to learn some lessons. I've learned that, really, I know nothing about literature, except maybe a little about The Waste Land. There are things I learned in studying The Waste Land that only now have any real resonance with me, particularly in regards to engaging with a text.

Slogging my way through A.S. Byatt's A Whistling Woman, I was slapped in the face:

The children looked blank. Bill said "No one knows the Bible any more."
"I shouldn't have thought that should bother you," said Daniel.
"How can they read Milton, and Lawrence, and Dickens, and Eliot without knowing their Bibles?"

There's a time (the time I spent at university) I might've argued with this. That a work should stand on its own, certainly apart from its creator's biography, but it should be able to stand outside of history as well. And I still believe this to be true, to a degree. One doesn't need to know the details of the foundation, the influence, the references in order to appreciate a book, but it makes the experience a hell of a lot richer. The books! — they're all talking to each other.

I don't know my Bible. Nor do I know Milton, Lawrence, Dickens, or Eliot particularly well, though I'm trying to rectify this.

Maybe I should've majored in English. Maybe I'm trying to make up for it now.

So. If you think I'm full of shit, you're mostly right.

The rest of it
I hungrily devoured Peter Carey's My Life as a Fake over the course of one (toddler-free) day. I've not read anything else by this author, although I've been meaning to for years on the recommendation of a former coworker whose taste in books I actually trusted.

The story at the heart of the story, and within which there's another story, is about a man who pulls a prank on a literary snob of an editor, submitting for publication the newly discovered "genius" poetry of a wholly fictitious mechanic. The hoax came to light, its author snubbed by the literary community and the editor publically disgraced. To add injury to insult, the editor was later prosecuted for publishing those very poems because of their obscene references.

(This much is actually based in literary history, the Ern Malley hoax, perpetrated in Australia. Carey uses snippets of Ern Malley's poetry in his novel, as well as borrowing from the trial transcript.)

Bits of Malay vocabulary, and some "unnatural" sentence structure, are sprinkled throughout, though personally I find this to be more distracting than flavour-enhancing.

We learn the story through the ears and eyes of Sarah Wode-Douglas, the editor of a London literary review. Her character is an excellent frame for the story of the hoax — her hunger to discover the next great thing. However, along with her professional demons come weaker, personal ones. While resolving the mysteries of her past, in particular concerning the events surrounding her mother's death, it's demonstrated how one person's perception or memory can wildly differ from objective reality, but these sections of the novel do nothing to enhance the themes already sufficiently present in the main plot.

It's a bit of a Frankenstein story, but we're never really certain to what extent anyone "created" anyone else. (And what happens if you are your own creation, turning on yourself?) When a mechanic presents himself as the fake poet, we don't know whether he's simply stark-raving mad, a real poet who's life story was stolen from him, or whether he even exists at all.

The most interesting review of this novel I've read is that by John Updike in The New Yorker, in which much is made of the fragility of our tangible world versus the organic and lasting quality of poetry.

I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
the black swan of trespass on alien waters.

Though the poems were composed as a spoof of modern trends, with less than subtle hints of obscure classical references, the question remains: does the poetry stand on its own? (Is it merely intent that differentiates between parody and "the real thing"? How much of the author's intent is relevant to the reader's experience?)

Not a perfect novel, but it's a really good and unusual story, and I couldn't put it down.