How Do They Do It?

I've always wondered how they do it, those women. You know the ones, the women who are on the board of this organization and the fundraising committee of that, who have two children and a dog and a full-time job. The women who do it all. How?

For example, the president of our School Council (PTA to you) is a full-time lawyer, and she has two little kids. How does she manage? Where does she find the time? So I asked her. I did, I just asked her. And for one thing, she doesn't clean. She has a giant house and she gets someone in every weekend to clean. That's a whole day of cleaning, probably $200 a week or so. Of course she has childcare: she has a nice young woman who looks after the kids and probably does light housekeeping too. I don't know what else she doesn't do, but she's not averse to spending money so I bet she pays people to do quite a lot of mundane crap. I know I would if I could manage it.

I know dozens of these women with full-time jobs and children who none-the-less manage to take on huge volunteer roles in the school, or in other organizations. They don't all have money, so it can't be that they all outsource all that time-consuming everyday crap. And yet here I am, with my two kids and not much else on my plate, barely making it through each day. Why? There's nothing in particular wrong with me, that I know of. What do these other women have that I lack? Time? Ambition? Passion? Amphetamines?

Finally I decided that rather than try and work this out deductively I would just run an experiment. I would go ahead and sign myself up for a bunch of stuff and see what broke.

So this year, I'm chair of the school's Eco-Committee. (So far we've had one meeting, submitted a grant proposal, and sent a lot of email.) I'm working on the Crafts booth for our school Winter Fair. I'm class parent for Delphine's class, I help out in the library for two hours every two weeks, and I get to school at 8 am on Thursdays to help with Junior Choir. I run twice a week. I have choir, and book club, and that whole "writing career" thing I said I would get started on. I still have two children and a cat to look after, and a house to run. Oh, and I have friends who sometimes I like to hang out with, and a husband who, frankly, I barely ever talk to about anything other than household administrivia. And I like to watch TV. And read—a lot. And there's this blog. And the eight hours of sleep that I really, really enjoy.

Under all that weight, something's bound to break. Perhaps it will be sleep. Perhaps it will be housework. Perhaps it will be one of my new responsibilities. Perhaps it will be my mental health. Or perhaps it will turn out that I'm one of those women who can do it all. Perhaps all I needed to do was try.



That was the sound of Cordelia's head hitting the wall behind me when she scrambled to hide behind my legs. What was she hiding from? Why, another adult tried to talk to her. Horrifying.

And then, just a couple of days ago, someone's nanny helped her off a too-high ladder in the playground. That sent her into a five-minute paroxysm of screaming fear and rage.

Cordelia is a fearful child*. I don't know how this has happened, but it has. She's scared of being away from me, and she hates being spoken to by any adult outside of a small set of acceptable people. She constantly tells me she loves me, and she wants to touch me all the time, as if without a physical or audible expression of our love it will disappear.

Delphine isn't like that. She carries with her a confidence that she is loved, that she can handle herself, and that everything will be fine. Oh, she's very emotional and things get blown all out of proportion, but it's all on the surface. Underneath it all she is, as one of her kindergarten teachers put it, steady.

Cordelia's emotional outbreaks seem underlaid with panic, some kind of apparently bone-deep fear that if she isn't constantly affirming the love of those around her it will evaporate.

And yet it seems when she forgets to be afraid, she's fine. She loves her kindergarten teacher and her class. She can play by herself for ages, if she can get past that initial hurdle of Walking Away. This is a terrifically painful stage (for both of us) and yet surely it is only a stage. At home she's such a happy, enthusiastic kid with such great passion and ideas. I hope the passion wins over the fear.

* I know in my last Cordelia post I said she wasn't fearful. I guess I didn't see the fear before. It's pretty subtle—mostly her clinginess manifests as merely whiny or needy—but I've since started to see the undercurrent of real fear or panic in the way she holds on to me, and the pitch of her screams.

Knowing your child is an impossible art which you can nonetheless never give up.

Delphine Writes About Santa

Delphine Writes About Santa
Santa Claus's House. By Delphine

Everyone knows that Santa brings us presents and lives at the North Pole. But what does his house look like? It has a Santa chair and a fireplace with the fire usually on and smells like cookies.

I have no idea where she learned that rhetorical question structure, but I think it's brilliant! Also apparently "usually" is very hard to spell.

More hurray!

A while ago I had my first patch to Thunderbird committed.

Today I pushed my first patch, all by myself.

It’s kind of exciting, having checkin privileges. It means that I don’t have to wait for someone else to check in my changes once they’re accepted. But on the downside, it means that I’m the one who has to do the commit, and watch the Tinderbox, and if anything goes wrong, I’m even more on the hook than I previously was. (Well, that last part isn’t really true, but I feel way more nervous than when I could just add “checkin-needed” to the bug, and not worry about it anymore.) And basically there’s just a lot of new stuff for me to keep track of, and figure out. But since anything I do is going to show up in the official history, I need to figure it out before I do it, which always adds a little pressure, which in this case is probably a good thing.

Fuck That

Dave Pell thinks we're fucked. Or rather, Dave Pell thinks most of the stuff people post to Twitter is a boring waste of time. Why he chose to express that as "we're fucked" I'm not sure. We're fucked because the earth is heating up and no-one has the balls to do anything about it, but that doesn't have much to do with Twitter.

Dave Pell doesn't like people posting about the following on Twitter: where they are; current events and their opinions on them; the party they are at; their children; flight delays; their small fitness triumphs; jokes or puns they made up or ideas they had; what they're listening to; what they're thinking about; where they are; the state of their inbox; the weather.

You know what all those things are? They're small talk. Small talk is a social lubricant. Small talk is how you get to know someone better so you can decide if you want to share Big Talk with them. Small talk is how you connect with other human beings, it's how you reach out and find out what you share. It's how you gain an understanding of how everyone else experiences the world.

Small talk is not profound. No-one can be profound all the time, but if the only time we're allowed to connect with other people is when we have the energy and insight to be profound, this is going to be one hell of a lonely life.

I love people. I love being with people and sharing and chatting about kids and weather and books and news. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are superficial and trivial, sometimes they are intense and intellectual. Sometimes the conversations I have with people are in the flesh, and sometimes they are on the Internet. Either way, I make a connection, and I feel happier and more human. Does that mean I'm fucked? I really don't think so.

Christmas Pudding Cookies, or, I Am a Culinary Genius

On Wednesday, I made my Christmas puddings. I know it seems early to make Christmas anything, but you have to let Christmas puddings hang around for a while after you make them. Like, a couple of months. Also you have to stay on top of Christmas or it will kick your ass.

I always have to do a special trip to the bulk food store to buy all the preserved fruit that goes into Christmas pudding, and no matter how hard I try to buy the right amount, I always end up with piles of leftover raisins and candied peel and slivered almonds after the puddings are made. I don't know about you, but I don't have that much use for candied peel and slivered almonds in my day-to-day life. Usually they sit around until July and then I throw them out. This year I was determined to do better.

I tried to think of some context (besides Christmas pudding) in which candied peel, almonds and raisins aren't, well, kind of gross, and I kept coming back to shortbread cookies. I don't know if I've had shortbread cookies with all that stuff in them, or if I just made it up, but in my head it made sense. I couldn't find a recipe for exactly what I had in mind, but I found a Martha Stewart recipe for rum raisin shortbread cookies to get me started.

I used raisins instead of currants because raisins were what I had too much of (I managed to buy the exact right amount of currants). I used lemon zest instead of orange zest because that's what I had, and because there's lemon zest in my Christmas pudding. I substituted rum for the vanilla because I wanted to make them as rummy and Christmassy as possible, and instead of the shredded coconut I put in ¼ cup slivered almonds and ½ cup candied peel.

They turned out perfectly, just as I had imagined them. They're very Christmassy and rich; Christmas Pudding in cookie form. Here's the recipe:

Christmas Pudding Shortbread Cookies

  • ½ cup dark rum
  • 1 cup raisins
  • ½ pound unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¾ cup confectioners' sugar
  • ½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup slivered almonds
  • ½ cup chopped candied peel
  • 1 teaspoon coarse salt
  1. Combine rum and raisins; cover, and let stand at room temperature overnight. Drain, reserving 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon rum.
  2. Beat butter, sugar, and lemon zest with a mixer on medium speed until creamy and smooth, about 2 minutes. Add reserved rum, and beat until combined. Reduce speed to low. Add flour and salt, and beat for 3 minutes. Stir in raisins, almonds and candied peel by hand.
  3. Form dough into 2 logs, each about 1 ½ inches in diameter; wrap in parchment, and refrigerate 1 hour (or up to 3 days).
  4. Preheat oven to 325. Remove parchment. Slice logs into ¼-inch-thick rounds, and space about 1 inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment. Bake until pale golden, about 20 minutes. Let cool. Cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 week.

Books I Read Lately: Mid-October 2009 Edition (Part The Second)

I took out Understanding Your 6 Year-Old by Deborah Steiner in an attempt to understand my six-year-old, and it worked pretty well. Six-year-olds are in a horrible state: they realize they're not good at everything, they realize other people don't always like them, they realize other people's lives are different (and sometimes better) than their own, and on top of all that they realize that Mum isn't infallible. It's too much. No wonder they're so crabby. Reading this book helped me understand Delphine's perspective.

This is an English book translated for an American audience. I hate it when they do that, nominally because it's patronising to Americans to assume they can't understand Anglicisms, but in truth probably because I'm an Anglophile and I think (irrationally) that English English is better than American English. Anyway, either it's impossible to completely Americanize a book like this, or they did a lousy job because right from the first paragraph when she talked about "infant's school" I knew it was an English book, so all the Americanisms they did manage to slip in came off as glaring incongruities. Goodness knows what it would have been like to read as a unilingual American; very disquieting, I imagine.

The September 16 issue of New Scientist magazine had a section on science fiction, guest edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson said, "the range, depth, intensity, wit and beauty of the science fiction being published in the UK these days is simply amazing", so I thought, hey, I used to love science fiction, I should try it again. Sounds cool.

Robert J. Sawyer is a Toronto SF writer who gets some favourable press, so I picked up his novel Rollback. It's about a woman who initiated conversation with aliens in 2009. By the time the aliens' reply reaches earth, the woman is in her eighties and near death. A rich businessman offers to pay for a "rollback" treatment for the woman, which will return her to the health of a twenty-five year old. She accepts on the condition that her husband gets the treatment, too. To say more would spoil the plot, but there's romantic intrigue and alien contact and tragedy and stuff.

Plot-wise it was a good read, but I can't say it renewed my love of SF. I didn't buy the premise that the only person who can continue to communicate with the aliens is the person who started to. The writing was no better than servicable—my bar for writing quality has gone way up in the last few years. The dialogue was lumpy; do writers not say their dialogue out loud to see if it sounds like something anyone would ever say? And there were some very awkward pop culture references which were very clearly the author's own opinion, put into the mouth of his characters: diatribes on TV shows, extensive discussion about the Atkins diet, a Slashdot reference. The book was published in 2007 and the near-future part was set in 2009, and already the Atkins and Slashdot references were painfully anachronistic. The world changes so fast that writing near-future SF is playing with fire. (Although I'm not sure that any astrophysics professors were reading Slashdot even in 2007. I could be wrong; I stopped reading Slashdot in 2003.)

The characters were likeable and believable, the plot was interesting and kept me turning pages, and there were some interesting ideas presented about aging, and fidelity. But if this is the best the SF has to offer (and Sawyer does keep winning SF awards) I'm not surprised that SF writers don't win any "literary" awards. But I'm not giving up yet—Kim Stanley Robinson talked about UK SF writers, so I will read some of his recommendations, and my brother (who loves the same kind of writing that I do, Salman Rushdie and Kazuo Ishiguro and Khaled Hosseini) likes the writing of Charles Stross, so I will read him too.

Speak of the devil (hah!), my next read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, which I read for Book Club. I thought it was great, nice and light with a million references (pop culture and otherwise) to pick up, and a nice rich allegory to mull over when the book is done. (Okay, am I the only person who thinks "Butt the Hoopoe" is a "Mott the Hoople" reference? It could be!) This book manages to be both light and richly complex, like some kind of light but richly complex wine. (That's what you call the Trivial Metaphor.)

Before I read Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction edited by Lee Gutkind I didn't know what Creative Nonfiction was, and I'm not entirely sure I know now, but I think I read quite a lot of it. It seems to refer to those books and magazine articles which take a nonfiction topic and write about it in a literary way, like Mary Roach's books about sex and corpses, or The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. This book is a collection of short (very short, a page or two) chapters about various topics relevant to writing Creative Nonfiction: research, composite characters, libel, fact-checking, quotation marks, etc. That the chapters are arranged alphabetically brings a certain randomness to the book, but each chapter is clearly self-contained and there isn't much repetition. The shortness of the chapters keeps it interesting, resulting in a quick, easy, but very informative read.

Books I've Read Lately: Mid-October 2009 Edition

September and October have been really slow months for reading. I thought would be able to read more, what with the girls being in school, but it really seems like school generates more hours of work than it relieves. Also, and I cringe to admit it, I think I have been Twittering when I used to read. Those little bursts of reading I used to do, when brushing my teeth, or between chores, or (it's true) while on the can, are now spent on Twitter. I didn't think it would make that much difference, but the fact is I get through most of my reading three or four or five minutes at a time. I've been making a conscious effort to read more and Twit less since I realized the extent of the problem.

This is what I did manage to read:

I picked up Ideas and Details: A Guide to Writing for Canadians by M. Garret Bauman and Clifford Werier on a trawl through the library one day. This book is mainly about writing academic papers, but it seems to me the techniques in it apply to any kind of writing. It's a thinish book, only around 290 pages, but it covers an astonishing amount of material: how to get ideas, how to build paragraphs, how to create a thesis and outline, how to write a draft and revise it, writing style, word choice, writing descriptions, writing narrative, informative, and persuasive writing, how to do research and keep notes, and yet more. Everything is explained clearly with plenty of interesting examples and lots and lots of exercises and discussion questions. This would be a fantastic textbook for a writing class, but it's also a handy and rich reference book.

Slob proof! Real-Life Design Solutions by Debbie Weiner I don't like to clean, but I like my house to be clean. Or at least appear that way. This book leapt off the shelf at me—it's so seldom that you get a decorator who admits that not everyone wants to spend their life sponging down white walls or polishing sticky fingerprints off kid-height mirrors. I have read more than one magazine article which recommends white slipcovers for a house with kids because "you can just bleach them once a week!" Sure you could—but would you want to?

Debbie Weiner knows you don't want to, and this book is packed with specific recommendations for upholstery, flooring, and furniture styles which don't show marks, are easy to clean (if you ever have a chance) and will take years of abuse from your kids, your kids' friends, your friends' kids and your big hairy dog. She also has ideas about robust lighting, window coverings, rugs, and paint colours.

This is a fantastically useful book with great ideas, but I have to admit I am conflicted about slob-proof decorating. I love white. I love shades of white and grey and beige all together in one peaceful wash of foggy whiteness. (I am so not my mother's daughter: her living room is rain-slicker yellow.) I also love bright, crisp white with splashes of sparkling colour: bright azure or sunshiney yellow or vivid orange or acid green. I don't like a room that is heavy with dark, saturated colour: chocolate brown or wine red or navy blue. So somehow I have to figure out a way to get the white I love while using the darker, brighter colours on the areas which get the most abuse or are the hardest to clean.

The one thing missing from this book is advice on creating a slob-proof kitchen or bathroom. My in-laws' experience with engineered wood has proven that if you want a sturdy kitchen you need to choose materials carefully, and my experience with graceful (curvy, impossible to clean) faucets and a clawfoot tub (how are you supposed to clean behind that?) have show that choice of fixtures can make the difference between a cleanable bathroom and one that reduces you to tears. Some of the advice in the book is applicable to kitchens and bathrooms (Marmoleum!) but it would have been nice to have a section addressing those areas specifically.

Out of time for today. Stay tuned...

I Get So Mad

The girls had a fight last night. I was sitting reading, and they were playing on the living room floor. They both wanted a truck that Delphine had made out of Lego; Cordelia wanted it to play with, Delphine wanted to use the pieces for something else. The disagreement soon escalated to snatching and hitting, so I intervened.

The Democrative Parenting people suggest that this is a splendid opportunity to show your children how to resolve difficulties. Could Delphine get other, identical pieces out of the Lego box? No. Could Cordelia play with some other Lego or a different truck? No. Could Delphine make Cordelia another, identical truck so Cordelia could play with that and Delphine could have the pieces of this truck? No? No.

So you have no interest in actually resolving this, you actually don't care about the truck or the Lego at all, in fact you're just being little assholes and fighting for the sake of it, then?

It was at this point that I got hollerin' mad. I was mad at them for being contentious jerks, but also at the parenting advice people who are all, "Help your children learn to communicate and resolve disagreements," ignoring the fact that they are not always tiny little adults who just want to get along. I'm no Skinnerian but sometimes you have to treat them like animals, because sometimes they behave like animals.

So I manged to lose my temper not only at the kids but also at an entire philosophy of parenting. Hooray!

After I was done hollering at them I went upstairs to my room, and then they worked it out for themselves.

Alyson Schäfer would say that they were fighting to get my attention, and my first mistake was intervening when it got physical—that is, rewarding them for fighting by giving them the attention they sought. The facts of the case certainly support that theory: I was ignoring them (by reading), they fought, I paid attention to them, they kept my attention by refusing to resolve their fight. They only stopped fighting when I took my attention out of the picture by leaving the room. Which is what I should have done as soon as the fighting started.

(Of course that's easier said than done when you have a tiny house with only one really good reading spot. Parenting is hard.)