Awesome First Day of March Break

Today started early for me - I was awake at around 6:30. Awake of my own voilition! No-one jumped on me. I lay in bed, too hot because we haven't adjusted our bedding to account for spring (why is it that even though the thermostat always says 18, it's way colder in January than in March?) and listened to an unexpected chattering noise from somewhere in the house. It wasn't music or the radio... I couldn't place it, and then I realized it was Delphine reading to Cordelia. I stayed in bed for as long as I could stand the heat, and finally got up at 6:45. The girls and I headed downstairs for breakfast, with a brief detour to jump on Daddy (well, for the kids).

For first breakfast we had cereal, and then Delphine logged on to play her daily complement of video games (she likes Diego games lately) and I hied myself upstairs to clean the bathroom and take a shower. Once clean and dressed I went downstairs again to put brunch in the oven, for we were expecting company! Then I vacuumed and tidied and cleaned and dusted like a mad woman, in time for everything to be ready at 10, when our friends were to arrive.

Then we waited! And cleaned. And waited! And puttered. Waited! Put some coffee on. Waited! Arranged coffee mugs and cream and sugar artfully on the counter. Waited! Sent children outside to greet company. And then finally they arrived! They were probably only ten minutes late but when you've busted your ass to be ready in time and you're all set, it's so anti-climactic to have an empty house for even a couple of minutes.

Brunch was a delightful French toast/bread pudding. I got the recipe from Kat, who got it from her friend's mother (I think). I reproduce it here in full because it's that good:

French Toast Bread Pudding (Fread Pudding, of course)

1 loaf challah (although we used raisin bread this time and it was sublime)
7 eggs
2.5 C milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 C butter
1 C brown sugar
splash of maple syrup if you have any

Cut up the bread into cubes. Beat the eggs and milk and vanilla together, then mix the bread in. Put it in the fridge overnight.

Next morning butter a lasagna pan, and put the bread mixture in it. Melt the butter and mix in the brown sugar, and then pour the butter mixture over the bread.

Bake the whole thing in the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit (see, I can spell it!) for 40 to 45 minutes. I usually broil it for a minute or two for crunchiness. Let it cool for a few minutes and serve.

We had great company - two other couples with two kids each, so we had one baby, an almost-two, Cordelia who is three, Evan who is four, and Delphine and Ursa who are five. They all had a great time with only bits of crying. Otis in particular was a trooper despite having lost a fingernail in a horrific toilet lid accident earlier in the day.

After we stuffed ourselves silly with fread pudding, bacon, croissants, strawberries, and coffee the children dragged us slowly to the park where they ran around for an hour, or maybe two, while we grownups talked to each other. Lovely! And Blake got a sunburn.

Oh that's right! I didn't mention how perfectly perfect the weather was! It seems we have passed that season of purgatory wherein if it is sunny it must be cold, and if it is warm it must be gloomy. Now we can have both at the same time!

So Blake has a charming sunburn on one side of his forehead. I said we have to go back to the park tomorrow and stand on the other side of the playground, so he matches.

After the girls had run their fill (almost - I don't think they have ever actually exhausted the charms of the park on their own terms, I always have to drag them away, but the dragging was easier than usual today) and I had investigated a rather charming little creek born from the runoff from giant snow mountains dumped at the top of the park throughout winter, we headed east, to Bayview. I bought the girls their ceremonial First Ice Cream of the Season (lemon for Delphine and chocolate mint for Cordelia), and I had my first Frappuccino of the year.

And finally we circled back to home, which was still tidy and clean from my hard work of the morning. The girls did some drawing, and before we knew it, Baba and Zaida were here for family dinner. Zaida picked up sushi, so we didn't have to cook or dirty up the kitchen, and it was delicious. The girls played outside for a little longer, and then headed to bed without all that much fuss. (Especially since I didn't have to put them there - Blake and Zaida did bedtime while I worked on the cryptic with Baba.)

It was one of those lovely, chilled out, sunny, fun days with lots of good friends (good, smart friends!) and family, cute kids and yummy food. Food and company - I think those are my favourite things. At least for today.

Letters, I Send Letters

Here's a letter I sent to Scholastic books through this petition.

Dear Mr. Robinson and Ms. Newman,

My name is Amy Brown. My daughter is in kindergarten and she loves books. I remember buying books through Scholastic when I was a kid - my copy of Charlotte's Web was a Scholastic book, and I just bought my daughter her own copy through Scholastic. I think you provide a great service.

However, I am disappointed by the amount of toys, trinkets, and electronic media in your book clubs, to say nothing of the TV-show and movie tie-in books which are of questionable value. It's really become a chore to comb through your catalogues in search of quality. (Although it's much easier now that you list the author name - thanks for that!)

The opportunity to sell directly to children in schools is a privilege, not a right. Schools grant Scholastic unique commercial access to children because of its reputation as an educational publisher. But Scholastic is abusing that privilege by flooding classrooms across the country with ads for products and brands that have little educational value and compete with books for children's attention and families' limited resources. There's no justification for marketing an M&M videogame or lip gloss in elementary schools.

Please return to selling books - and only books - through your in-school book clubs.

Sincerely, Amy Brown

Books To End February and Begin March

Quintet by Douglas Arthur Brown. I can't remember where I found out about this book - probably from the Globe and Mail's now-diminished book section. I don't always like the novels they like, but I did really enjoy this one.

The book is about three men, triplets, who lost their parents in a freak accident. After the accident the brothers decide to reconnect with each other by taking turns writing to each other in a journal. As the book progresses each brother's voice becomes clearer and various mysteries are presented and resolved, as one would expect. (I'm tired, man.) It was a good story, once you got past the extreme unlikeliness of three brothers all happening to be such good writers, and managing to find the time to write longhand when half the time we don't even have time to email each other. Nice characterization and development, a bit of a mystery, interesting secondary characters. (I should do this when I'm not so tired.) So this was a good book and if you like character-driven novels you should read it.

Burning Down The House: Fighting Fires and Losing Myself by Russell Wangersky is a memoir of the author's time as a volunteer firefighter. These days being a firefighter is as much being the first responder to car crashes as it is fighting fires, and was largely that aspect at the job which really worked at Wangersky's head and messed up his life. Not talking to anyone was part of the problem, as you might imagine. This is the story of Wangersky's experiences as a firefighter, his descent into darkness and recovery. It was a good book, if you're into descents into darkness and back.

The Chameleon's Shadow by Minette Walters is about a English soldier who returns from Iraq after being injured by an IED which killed two of his men. He has trouble remembering what happened at first, and as the novel progresses he gets his memory back and tries to put his life back together. Meanwhile a series of grisly murders seem to be connected to him, and he has to try and clear his name with the help of a motley band of psychiatrists, doctors, drunks and street kids. I enjoyed this book; it wasn't as cynical as Walters' usual stuff, and the mystery was well-played-out.

State of The Nation

Part IV: Delphine

Delphine has a good day every day. At least, that's what Blake tells me. Every night he has a little chat with her after I read her bedtime chapter to her. Every night, he asks her if she had a good day, and apparently every day is good. I'm glad to hear this, because it's sometimes hard to tell, while you're going through the day with her, that it's a good day. Sometimes she cries, sometimes she seems very unhappy or angry or disappointed, but apparently in retrospect, every day is pretty good. I don't know if this means she is resilient, or just that she has a very bad short-term memory.

Delphine is in the second half of Senior Kindergarten, and she's very happy at school. In fact, she would like more school; two and a half hours a day isn't enough for her. Lately her teacher has been away sick, and her substitute teacher isn't as brilliant as her regular teacher - it took her four weeks to figure out Delphine can read. But then she has a million little kids to look after, and Delphine's pretty quiet. Delphine wasn't very happy to have a new teacher, but she's adjusted. Maybe next year she can go through an entire year with the same teacher.

Right now we're slogging through the seemingly-endless Magic Tree House series. She hasn't had the nerve to try reading a chapter book on her own, so I am stuck reading them but I might put my foot down and insist on something a little more complicated. There's no point in me reading her something written at a grade, like, two level (or whatever) when we could be reading Anne of Green Gables or something more sophisticated. Plus it will be incentive for her to practice reading more.

Delphine loves to play video games. She loves to watch TV too. I have some qualms about this - I know that sitting in front of a screen isn't the best thing for a little kid. On the other hand, it's not the worst thing she could be doing. She enjoys herself, and most kids' TV and video games try very hard to be "educational". For now she's limited to 30 minutes a day on the computer and two shows a day on weekdays, 4 on weekend days.

She and Cordelia watch Dora, Blue's Clues, Yo Gabba Gabba, Pingu, Peep and the Big Wide World. And a show called Heads Up, which is about astronomy and science, with Bob McDonald, who she calls "Bob". How one tiny brain can harbour love for both Heads Up and Dora the Explorer, I will never know.

Delphine's big obsession right now is space. She's fascinated by the origin of the universe, and she especially loves planets. Her favourite is Saturn, but she is a fan of gas giants in general. We read a lot of books about space. (I really like "11 Planets: A New View of the Solar System" by David Aguilar.) She's also interested in weather, and science in general.

She has a million and one questions about everything, and I've learned to talk things through ("Well, what do you think?") rather than just answering them. Often she has the answer, she just needs to think it through. Or she comes up with something I would never think of. For example, apparently Santa isn't real, but his work is done by elves. Elves who sneak into your house through little holes. I can't make this stuff up.

What else does she do? She teaches Cordelia stuff. She fights with Cordelia (I'm convinced this is somehow entertaining for them.) She rides her bike and skips, now that it's a little warmer out. She spends a lot of time drawing and writing and otherwise creating things with paper and tape and stickers and stuff. Yesterday she wanted to do science. She figured out what paper is made of (paper is made of little dots!) and then she asked me to give her a question. I finally wanted to know, how hot and how cold is the water that comes out of the tap? I set her up with a thermometer and a mug and let her at it. It wasn't the most rigorous science ever, but it was fun.

Another Great Video

This one's less cranky. In fact, it's funny and inspiring.

(Wow, it's like this weblog is becoming a list of interesting things I find on the Internet. Like, a log of web pages or something.)

Seven Things You Don't Know About Me (Maybe)

  1. I was baptized into the Anglican church when I was ten. Yeah. Old enough to know better. I'm still not really sure why I did it; I don't think I really believed in God even back then. I was not the most thoughtful kid, and I think I figured that it was some kind of protracted metaphor or something. Or maybe I did believe in God back then. I remember praying when I was little, six or seven. I used to pray to Jesus that I would have a new toy when I got home from school. Yeah, I was a horrible little materialist too. I know I was thoroughly atheist by high school, I'm just not sure when and why I changed my mind.

  2. I once perpetrated a horribly executed breakup. I was nineteen and I broke up with the one boyfriend I had before I met Blake. I didn't know why I wanted to break up with him - still not very thoughtful by then - I just knew it wasn't going to work and I wanted out. So I broke up with him, but of course since I didn't know why I wanted out, I couldn't tell him why, which must have been very unsatisfying. On top of that, I felt so guilty about making the guy miserable that I kind of told him we might get back together. We weren't going to get back together, and I must have realised that, but I was too much of a coward to make a clean break so I strung the poor kid along for a couple of months. Oh, did I mention we were still having sex? Yeah, that was all part of the "let him down easy" initiative. I don't think the guy knew it was really over until he realized I was going out with Blake. And by "going out with", I mean... well, you know what I mean.

    But the ex consoled himself with a fresh new seventeen-year-old, so I don't feel too bad. I think they're still together!

  3. I have IBS. (I love that domain name.) I don't really talk about it because it's not very interesting and it seems like TMI. Although apparently it affects between 15% and 30% of the population, and yet I don't know anyone else who admits to having it. So maybe it's time to start talking about it, because I know I feel like I'm the only person in the world with this stupid, embarrassing problem.

    Hm, I just realized I'm exaggerating. I know two other people with various awkward bowel problems, and a third person has told me she has IBS. So maybe I'm not so alone. Still. Feels that way sometimes.

  4. I have a thing for (tall) men with beards. Big, full beards, not long, Gandalf beards. Yeah, I know it's weird and runs contrary to the current (like, the last century) fashion but there it is. It might have started with an early love for Gerald Durrell Or maybe it's just a Santa Claus thing. The irony is Blake's never going to be able to grow a decent beard.

  5. When I was eleven I started to learn flute, and then clarinet, and quit them both. I quit because I was not instantly successful and I didn't yet realize that most things worth doing are difficult and annoying at first. I was the classic over-praised child; I was so keen to maintain my reputation as "smart" and "capable" that the moment I wasn't good at something I quit. I also doubted my ability to succeed - I honestly thought that if something was hard at first I would never get better at it. I don't know how I so colossally failed to get the concept of a "learning curve" for so many years. Trying not to let that happen to my kids.

  6. I have a million cousins. Well, not a million, but plenty, especially considering I only have one aunt and one uncle. My aunt Delphine, my mother's sister, had one daughter who had two kids, so that's one cousin and two cousins once removed.

    My uncle Michael, on my father's side, was a little more fecund. He has four children (so five cousins total). Cousin Martin has four children, Bernard has three children, Amanda and Bridget have two each for a total of thirteen cousins once removed. Bernard's daughter Giorgina has a baby now, so I have a cousin twice removed as well. That makes nineteen cousins altogether.

    I guess that isn't that many cousins - people from larger families have dozens of cousins. But to someone who grew up without any significant contact with extended family, it seems like a lot. It seems weird to have this connection with such a big group of people.

    I don't hear much from my extended family, at least on my dad's side, probably because they already have eleven cousins and four aunts and uncles to deal with. I'm sure they're not in the market for yet another family member.

  7. I lived in at least ten different houses before I went to university at seventeen. Why? No good reason. My parents (my dad, really) just felt the need to move a lot. I think my childhood would have been better if we hadn't have moved so much, but there were benefits, too: I have lived in three different countries, I have experienced what it is to be an outsider (again, and again, and again). I am extremely adept at finding people I like and making friends. I'm good at finding my way around new places and I can feel comfortable just about anywhere.

    The moving madness didn't stop when I went to university, of course. I was in co-op, which meant another move every four months. Waterloo, Ottawa, Waterloo, Mississauga, Toronto, Waterloo. But since then (apart from a four month trip to Europe) I have lived within two kilometers of Yonge and Davisville, and here I intend to stay until the girls go off to their universities. It's nice to finally put down some roots.

Well it's been 14 years...

On this day in 1995, Blake and I started going out. I was nineteen, in third year (or second? It's a blur.) and Blake was just about to turn 22. We had been friends for about a month. We started hanging out after seeing Pulp Fiction with a group of friends at a Waterloo repertory theatre. The chemistry was great and we spent all our time together. Finally on March 2nd we decided to start going out, and we've been together ever since!

Okay, not much to this post but I wanted to mark the day. Fourteen years is a long time!


One of the important things I left out of the career test is that I want to work part-time for the forseeable future. Yeah, that's a pretty big omission, because there are entire fields of work which do not have part-time positions. Like software development.

My main idea at the moment is library work, or more generally information management. It makes sense for several reasons: I love books and reading and information, I like to look things up, I love and understand data and metadata, it's nerdy and quiet and air-conditioned, while still being Part of the Solution rather than Part of the Problem. (At least, potentially, depending what position I ultimately take.)

To that end, I am looking at two options, the first being a one-year Library and Information Technology Technician diploma at Seneca College, the second being a Masters of Library Something-or-other at U of T. The intellectual snob in me wants to go for the Master of Information Studies, but the pragmatist says the diploma is the way to go - it's cheaper, it's shorter and it won't leave me overqualified for part-time positions. Maybe people at cocktail parties (or housewarming parties) won't be bowled over by my credentials, but that's so superficial. Impressing people at parties is not the main thing. (It's something I really want to do, but it's not the main thing!)

And of course I don't have the resources to pursue a university degree at the moment. I wouldn't feel comfortable spending so much of my family's time and money at this stage. Once I have been working for a while, and the children are older, I can think about pursuing whatever university education seems relevant at the time. Maybe the girls and I will go to university at the same time!

The one thing that's still missing is something that occurred to me today. I'm reading the wonderful Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and he was talking about trying to see things from children's perspective, and treating them with respect. Maybe because I was treated with respect myself, or maybe because I remember what it was like to be a kid more clearly than it seems a lot of people do, but I'm good with kids. I'm good with them and I love them. I really enjoying spending time with the children at Delphine's school, and I will miss it when they are older and I no longer have an excuse to volunteer at the elementary school.

I don't (at the moment) see a path to working with children through the LIT diploma - I can't work at the Toronto Public Library with that diploma (apparently they are intellectual snobs too), and I can't work at a public school in Toronto because they insist that you be qualified as a teacher to be a school librarian. So how can I get my grubby little hands on the youth of today? I don't know. I will have to look into it further.

February Books, Some Of 'em, Anyway

How To Read Novels Like A Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World's Favourite Literary Form by Thomas Foster. Blake gave me this for Christmas because I loved Thomas Foster's last book so much. This is a field guide to novels, starting from the first sentence, and touching on all the main elements of the novel: the narrator, the structure, the sources, the ideas and theme, heroes and anti-heroes, what kinds of sentences, vocabulary, and so on.

I took this book with me to book club, and one of the other club members turned her nose up at it. "Why would you want to?" Well, maybe you wouldn't, but wouldn't it be interesting to read the book and find out? I found this book really helpful; it gave me lots of ideas of things to focus on and think about when I read novels. (Incidentally, yes, a lot of the things were covered in high school English class, but somehow I wasn't ready for them then. Sometimes I wonder if grade school is wasted on kids just because they're so green. Or maybe it was just me.)

I applied some of the things I learned to the last novel I read and it did indeed deepen the experience. I actually found that my heightened attention left me with more questions about the book than I would otherwise have had, so I guess that's something.

I reread Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell for the local library's non-fiction book club. Interesting to read it again; I found myself thinking, "Oh, that's where I read that" quite often. I do tend to remember what I've read but not remember where. Such a lazy mind, I have.

Anyway, if you are the one person left on the planet who hasn't read this book before, it's about how we make snap judgements, which can be very valuable if our minds are trained properly, but of course are also the root of prejudice. So the most important part of the book is really the part which covers how to manage and control rapid cognition. One of the things he talks about is how you can improve your score on an Implicit Association Test, specifically the black/white one, by exposing yourself to images and stories of successful black people. So the obvious question is, has the average score changed in favour of blacks since the advent of the ultimate shiny black guy, Barack Obama? I'm sure the people at Harvard are looking into it.

Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris This book was referred to in the Alfie Kohn book about common misconceptions. The misconception in question was that expressing anger, "getting it out of your system", reduces anger. Kohn referred to this book when he debunked that notion. I have a personal interest in anger so I decided to check it out.

Anger is not a self-help book, it's an overview and discussion of the current (well, current at the time - it's around ten years old) research on anger. Tavris covers the history of thinking on anger, cultural differences, and of course lots of information about research into what anger is, where it comes from, what it's for and what we can do with it. She mythbusts a few ideas, like that supressing anger will lead to disease; she discusses factors which can make anger worse; she talks about anger within marriages, and she has an entire chapter about anger as a force for social change in the context of the women's rights movement. The last chapter is the only chapter which formally presents advice for dealing with anger. All in all a very helpful book, more so than the other books I have read on the subject.

Grow Wild!: Low Maintenance, Sure-Success, Distinctive Gardening with Native Plants by Lorraine Johnson and Andrew Leyerle I love these books about native-plant gardening. I would love to have a garden full of low-maintenance, indigenous plants which will nourish birds and insects. In fact, I plan to have such a garden. I just have no idea where or how to start. I guess the answer is, slowly. In the meantime I'll keep on reading books like this (which was a good one, but I liked The Naturalized Garden by Stephen Westcott-Gratton more) for inspiration.

Honey, I Wrecked The Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don't Work by Alyson Schafer. I was going to read this book because I liked Alyson Schafer's last book, and because I like Alyson Schafer: she is tremendously generous with free advice by email even though she's busy and could be charging hundreds of dollars for that advice. And then I thought, maybe I wouldn't read it because things are going pretty well with the girls and I don't want to borrow trouble. Then Blake said, "Read it anyway, the last one was funny and helpful." So I did, and indeed it was funny and helpful. It covered a lot of the same ground as Breaking The Good Mom Myth (I think: see above re: not remembering where I read stuff) but it was a useful refresher on democratic parenting.

I copied out three things from the book to stick up in my kitchen. The first was the DROP-the-rope system for getting out of power struggles. I seem to get into power struggles a lot with my little ones, over stupid things like which boots to wear or what to have for snack. DROP is a clever mnemonic but obviously not clever enough because I don't remember what it stands for. Anyway, it basically means disengage, back off, figure out what the situation demands (not what you as a control freak or parent who is afraid of losing power demand), make sure everyone's rights are being honoured, and then extend a peace offering. Basically figure out what is actually necessary, and stop being so damn scary.

The second thing I wrote down was a list of ways to deal with sibling conflicts, which happen a lot around here. First on the list is "Ignore them". Yeah!

The third thing I wrote down was a suggested agenda for a family meeting, which Schafer pretty much insists you have to have in order to have a proper democratic household. The agenda does look terrifically useful, as it includes things like "review next week's schedule", and "distribute allowance", two things we should do every weekend but often flake out on. I added "make dinner menu plan". If we do manage to implement family meetings on Friday nights they would be very useful.

The only problem with this book is that it's awfully edited. There were spelling errors and grammatical errors all over the place. I don't blame Schafer for this: being a good therapist and writer doesn't mean you can spell. The publisher should have thrown a few more resources at it, though. Very weird omission, and of course it detracted from the message of the book.

Father Knows Less Or: "Can I Cook My Sister?": One Dad's Quest to Answer His Son's Most Baffling Questions by Wendell Jamieson. Jamieson has a kid who, like every other kid, asks lots of weird questions, the kind of questions you don't ask as an adult because you have more context for things, or because you don't want to look stupid, or because you are too busy to think about things that don't directly affect you. Jamieson decided he was going to find out the answers to those questions, but not by looking them up in the encyclopedia (like my Mum did) or Googling (like I do), but by using his chops as an editor at The New York Times to get actual experts to answer them.

I read this because I thought it would be a cute novelty book, and maybe I would learn the answers to some of those surreal questions children ask. It was cute and I did learn lots of interesting things. But it was also a touching story of parenthood, and of what it is to grow up and live in New York. Jamieson is honest and generous with details from his life, which adds depth and warmth to this collection of sometimes wacky, sometimes profound questions and answers.