Books Read in Novemberish Decemberish

A while ago I read the latest Kathy Reichs: 206 Bones. You know, if it were up to me, I wouldn't bother with Kathy Reichs. I really only read them because my mother reads them and it's nice to talk about them with her. Anyway, I guess I must like them well enough because I do read them. In this one our feisty heroine finds herself trapped in a tomb, struggling to remember how she got there and find out how to get out before it's too late! The mystery was mysterious and satisfyingly resolved, but my very favourite part of the book was right at the end, when Reichs let her character, Tempe Brennan, stop talking in sentence fragments for a heartfelt paragraph about the field of forensic anthropology. It was clear that it was Kathy Reichs talking, not Tempe Brennan, and equally clear to me that I would rather read a book about Reichs than about Brennan.

A Handful of Time by Kit Pearson. Twelve year old Patricia is sent from her home in Toronto to stay with her aunt and cousins— strangers to her—at their lakefront cottage in Alberta, while her parents sort out the terms of their divorce. Unable to get along with her cousins, she explores on her own and finds a pocket watch which takes her back in time to when her own mother spent her twelfth summer at the lake. Patricia divides her summer between her mother's childhood and her own, and discovers how to connect with her cousins and with her present-day mother. A Handful of Time is a beautifully written book with believeable, rich characters and a satisfying ending. Also, it made me cry. A keeper for the girls' bookshelf.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinov is a stats book. I love stats—I really should have done stats at school, if any math—but it's hard. The human brain is not wired to understand risk and probability. The good news is Leonard Mlodinov makes it much easier to understand. This book goes over a lot of the basic principals of probability: sample space, the law of large numbers, bell curves, standard deviation, chi-squared. All that is the build up for what this book is about, which is how much more stuff is random than we think. Humans love to tell stories about the world, and when something apparently significant happens we would rather construct a narrative about why, than recognize that whatever it was was probably statistically inevitable, or at least not caused by whatever we're attributing it to.

This was one of the books I bought myself for my birthday, and I'm really happy to own it because it provides such good explanations for so many stats concepts, and despite being fascinated by statistics, I need to constantly refresh my understanding of it. Having this book on my shelf will make that a much less painful experience.

Speaking of bookshelves, my to-be-read shelf is two feet long and I committed to reading most of it before attacking my to-be-read list at the library, which is 50 books long (the maximum you're allowed to place on hold) or my to-be-read list on my computer, which is fifteen books long. (It would be longer, but I deleted it by accident a couple of weeks ago.)

As I say, I committed to reading most of the books on my physical bookshelf, but then I realized I'm not all that interested in reading a lot of them. Most of them are books that other people have given me to read, and I'm not excited about them at all, not in the way I'm excited about the books on my lists. I've got a dozen or more not-exciting books between me and the exciting books I want to read: that's not right. I've decided I'm going to sit down with all those books and reevaluate them. The ones I'm not interested in I will pass on, with no guilt. Life is too short to read books I'm not excited about.

How do other people manage their to-read lists?


2009 started with a lot of snow. Delphine (then 5) was in Senior Kindergarten in the afternoons, so our days were punctuated by daily trips to and from school in the big orange stroller. Cordelia (then 3) caught a nap in between the drop-off trip and the pick-up trip, but I had to wake her up almost every day.

Blake had been laid off from his job in December, but rehired immediately as a contractor, working from home. It took a while to sort out a routine, but he eventually settled his "home office" into the big white chair in the living room. Needless to say this isn't ideal, but it's nice that he has a job, and it's nice for me to have a little extra company during the day. (Company, not help: he's not all that much more useful than Thomas the cat.) Working from home was leavened by occasional days spent at the University of Toronto working with a professor friend and his students.

Cordelia's mornings were spent, three days a week, in Nursery School, where she was much beloved by staff and classmates alike.

While the girls were off at their schools I occupied myself with the usual Mum stuff: looking after the other girl, baking, housework, and snatching time to read plenty of books and magazines. Monday evenings was devoted to choir practice: our February 2009 concert was Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle and in May we performed Brahms' Ein Deutsche Requiem (my favourite oratorio ever).

Gradually the weather warmed up, Blake had his birthday, and March break rolled around. We didn't go anywhere special (travelling at March Break is madness) and we avoided all the museums (going to museums at March Break is madness) but instead spent the week around the neighbourhood, seeing friends.

Play Structure In April I enlisted the help of my father-in-law and a handy friend of his to help me buy and install an amazing play structure in the backyard. We have a giant backyard (for Toronto) but there wasn't a whole lot to do back there. Now there is!

Blake and his fixie Also in April, Blake finally got around to converting the $200 Bianchi he got at a garage sale for $30 to a fixie. Translations: a Bianchi is an Italian make of bicycle; a fixie is a bike with no gears—the pedals are attached directly to the rear wheel by the chain, so if you pedal faster the wheels go faster, if you stop pedalling the wheels stop (eventually) and if you pedal backwards the wheels go backwards. This style of bike is much beloved of bike couriers and other people who like a lot of control over their bike.

Rainbow Cake In May, Delphine turned six and I made her a rainbow cake. She had a little party with some friends at our house.

June was notable for the end of school, as always, and for the first real warm days of summer. I poked at the garden a little bit, put up a new composter and moved the vegetable garden (again). I think the garden ended up worse—messier, less organized—at the end of summer than at the beginning, but I have a better idea of what I want to do with it.

The Garden

Family at a wedding The beginning of July saw us at a lovely wedding. For the first few weeks of July the girls and I amused ourselves around and about the city: we visited the Ontario Science Centre and the lake, and went to the library a lot. Unfortunately the Toronto municipal employees were on strike, so the park bathrooms were closed and all the city classes and day camps were cancelled. It was disappointing—Delphine was really looking forward to going to camp at Riverdale Farm.

Girls at the cattle farm At the end of July the girls and I left Blake alone in the now-smelly city of Toronto (the garbage men were on strike too) and flew to Saskatchewan to visit my mother. We went fishing, visited a cattle farm, went swimming, walked through the woods, and celebrated my birthday. My mum and the children had a great time together.

As soon as we returned to Toronto, the girls' other grandfather picked them up at the airport and took them to their cottage for a few more days at the beach while Blake and I enjoyed some extremely rare alone time.

As August drew to a close we squeezed in a little more summer fun. we went to the amusement park on Centre Island where Delphine rode a pony and Cordelia and I went on a roller coaster. (I've decided I'm not a roller coaster person.) And I took the girls to their first IMAX movie, Under The Sea. Summer's last hurrah was a fancy afternoon tea at the King Edward Hotel.

First Day of School September brought big changes for the children: Delphine started full-time school, entering Grade One, and Cordelia started Junior Kindergarten. Big changes for me too: only one school to drop off and pick up at, and mornings to myself—bliss! Both girls are doing famously at school and adore their teachers.

Since September we have all been well-occupied: the girls with school, me with the Parent-Teacher Association and Blake with work. (He has just been offered a permanent full-time job with Mozilla.)

It's not yet December as I write this, and I suppose something terrifically exciting could happen in the next month, but I'm just anticipating a choir concert (Ralph Vaughan Williams' Hodie), some decorations, plenty of food, friends over to sing carols, far too many presents and a nice winter break from school. Who knows... we might even have snow!

Meet Max

I'd like you to meet Max. Max is my new Macbook. New to me—he's actually refurbished. He's the first computer I've had to myself since I was in high school. Max has a 2.13 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and 2 GB of RAM. He's running Snow Leopard, and he's fast. Max doesn't make me wait for anything.

I called him Max because all our computers have people names, and because he's all white, like Max in Where The Wild Things Are.

Max is my work computer. I couldn't get anything done with the old laptop I was using because it was basically too slow to load any web pages, so I asked Blake to lend me $1000 of "our" money. I said I would pay it back. This agreement makes me uncomfortable and slightly unhappy, but I suppose that's a conversation to have with Blake. And at least I got Max out of it.

The Sound of Music

Last year Blake and I got sucked into the CBC's version of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria, mainly on account of Barrowman Barrowman Barrowman, but also because I love singing contests. After it was over, I decided it would be cool to watch the movie of The Sound of Music with the girls. As it turned out, it was both too long and too scary. Delphine was scared by the stern Captain, and also by the Nazis. Nevertheless, I decided to take Delphine with me to see the Toronto stage production. She's never seen a musical (or a play, for that matter) and it seemed like the right time. Plus I wanted to go.

Unsurprisingly, Dephine didn't want to go, but Blake and I convinced her that the show would be less intense on stage, and that either way it would be a fun day out with me. (Cordelia stayed home with Blake.)

So this Wednesday I picked Delphine up at school at lunchtime, and we took the subway downtown together to see the matinee. We stopped for barbeque pork buns and egg tarts at Urban Bakery and then went to the theatre where we found our seats (and a deluxe booster for Delphine), surrounded by middle schoolers on field trips. (They behaved beautifully, apart from some untoward hooting during the first kiss.)

The show was wonderfully staged, with gorgeous sets and evocative lighting. The singing was great, the big numbers were satisfyingly big—my favourite was "Do Re Mi": both educational and breathtakingly energetic. It wasn't too scary for Delphine—the Captain was stern for much less time, and even the Nazis seemed less threatening. Little Nazis far away on a stage are less intimidating than big closeup Nazis in your living room.

One genuinely creepy moment for me was when they dressed the entire Princess of Wales theatre with Nazi flags for the Austrian Music Festival scene. They hung swastikas above all the boxes, and a giant Reichsadler flag billowed down from the ceiling. It was chilling, unexpected and very effective. (I wonder if they did the same thing in the English production.)

My only complaint about the show was the weird marble-mouthed mid-Atlantic accent in which Elicia Mackenzie delivered Maria's dialogue. I couldn't place it at the time but in retrospect it reminded me of an incomprehensible hybrid of Agent Smith from The Matrix and Mythbusters' Jamie Hyneman. Between the weird accent and the snappy delivery, I missed a couple of lines of dialogue. The dude playing The Captain delivered his lines in much the same way, so I guess it was a directorial decision.

All in all, a successful outing. Delphine asked to go to another show with me. I said we would go again next year.

H1N1 Shots

Today the girls and I went for our H1N1 shots. The shots have been available for a few weeks now, so the big lineups have waned and we only had to wait for a few minutes to register. The girls were both pretty chipper about getting their shots, but I was a little nervous. Most of the people I've talked to about it said it hurt like crazy and kept hurting for days. The nurse said I should go first because the girls would cry, but I was all, "My kids won't cry! You don't know my kids!"

Delphine kept assuring me it wouldn't hurt, and indeed, despite my fears, the injection hardly hurt at all. It's a little achy now (four hours later) but nothing like I expected. (I wonder if that's because I had what I suspect was H1N1 last week?)

Then it was Delphine's turn. The nurse had me hold her legs between my legs and pin down her arm, which seemed excessive. The needle went in and Delphine started to cry. "That hurt!" She kept crying for a little while, just enough time to worry Cordelia, then she pulled herself together and it was Cordelia's turn.

Cordelia came up on my knee without hesitation, took off her shirt and made a show of leaving it stuck on her head like hair, but when the time came for me to hold her still she freaked out. I really did have to clamp her down and she still managed a little wiggle while the needle was in her. Then she had a good howl, no doubt freaking out all the other kids in the room. She got a band-aid ("Band-aid!", she sobbed) and then settled down.

Since the shot, Delphine has been fine and Cordelia has been a little whiny. She had mostly forgotten about the shot until she changed into her pajamas and seeing the bandaid reminded her, so she affected a Quasimodo lurch and moaned, "When I put clothes over my flu shot it hurts!" Awww. Then I let her brush her own teeth and she forgot about it again.

Tomorrow Blake's going to get the shot, and we will have a 100% household herd immunity rate. Hooray! And then just two months until seasonal flu shots.

Vegan Chocolate Cake

I typed this recipe in for a friend, so I'm going to post it here to get more value from my typing. This recipe is from the Reader's Digest Quick, Thrifty Cooking book which is an awesome all-round cookbook for yummy everyday food. I made this cake lots of times before I even realized it's vegan—it's certainly not labelled as such in the book, but it's definitely quick and thrifty:

Vegan Chocolate Cake

1 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanlla extract
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water

Preheat the over to 375 degrees F. Grease and flour an
8" x 8" x 2" baking pan. In a mixing bowl, combine
the flour, granulated sugar, cocoa, baking
soda, and salt. Make a well in the centre of the
mixture, and add the vanilla, vinegar, and oil,
then gradually stir in the water. Continue stirring
until thoroughly blended, but do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the baking pan and bake,
uncovered, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a
toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake
comes out clean. Do not overbake; the secret of
this cake is moistness. Cool in the pan on a wire
rack for 10 minutes, then remove the cake from
the pan to the rack to cool completely.

Books I Read Lately: November Edition

Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph. D.. Martin Seligman is one of the pioneers of Positive Psychology, the study of the psychology of normal life and happiness, as opposed to psychological pathologies. This book is about optimism, which Seligman claims hinges on how you explain the bad things which happen to you. When something nasty happens to you and you believe the cause was personal—it was your fault, pervasive—it will affect your whole life, and persistent—it will never go away, then you are cooking up a big batch of pessimism, which in big enough doses leads to depression.

This book is touted as a self-help book, but as such it went far too much into the history and theory of learned helplessness, and cognitive behavioural therapy. I enjoyed the backgrounder, but if you just want the advice part you could skip to Part Two or even Part Three.

If you're prone to mild depression, or if you just want to be happier, this is a useful introduction to the new(ish) theory of changing your mood by changing how you think about your life.

The Flu Pandemic and You: A Canadian Guide by Vincent Lam, M.D. and Colin Lee, M.D. (2006) is a guide to the pandemic. It was written with the avian flu pandemic (H5N1) in mind, but since 2006 H1N1 has come to the fore. Fortunately the issues are all but identical. (Thrillingly enough, H5N1 is still out there and could strike at any moment!) The book includes, among other things, the history of flu epidemics and pandemics, an explanation of the WHO pandemic stages, how to prepare for a pandemic, how to limit the spread of flu, and how to care for others with the flu.

The most interesting thing was the degree of preparedness the authors recommend. A while ago I read that Cody Lundin book, When All Hell Breaks Loose, and he advocated some pretty extreme levels of preparedness, including planning alternative places to poo if the water system goes down, and figuring out how to keep your house warm if the power (or natural gas) system fails. Lam and Lee don't go that far, but they do recommend keeping plenty of food, water, and medical supplies on hand, and even a camp stove to cook on.

The Flu Pandemic and You is written clearly and informs without alarming. The chapters on preparedness and caring for sick people make it worth buying to have on the shelf for reference.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis is a novel for children, about Elijah, the first free black child born in his Buxton, Ontario hometown. Elijah is a fragile boy, sensitive and scared of snakes. This story takes him through an adventure which tests his courage and gives him painful insight into his parents lives before they escaped slavery.

The characters in Elijah are complicated and believable, and the story is rich in plot and historical detail. I enjoyed every page of Elijah and can't wait until the girls are old enough to read it too.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson is Bryson's memoir of his childhood in 1950's and 60's Des Moines. Bryson is always gold, and this book is no different. By the time I finished this book, I almost wished I had grown up in 1950's Des Moines. The freedom that the children of the 1950s had, and the lack of external stimulation, are things I wish my children could have (even just for a few months so they appreciate all the bells and whistles of 2009 life more).

I bought a bird feeder a while ago, and I'm trying to find a book which will tell me what I should put in it to attract various specific birds, how to ward off squirrels and deter sparrows and pigeons, and maybe (bonus) provide a reference guide to the birds I'm likely to see in Toronto.

Backyard Birdfeeding by Mathew Tekulsky is not that book. It is about (perhaps unsurprisingly) backyard birdfeeding, but it's a personal account of the author's experience with his birds in his backyard, and his backyard is in California. It was still pretty interesting and gave me some ideas for how and what to feed, but didn't have the specific information I want.

Birds at Your Feeder: A Guide to Feeding Habits, Behavior, Distribution and Abundance by Erica H. Dunn and Diane L. Tessaglia-Hymes isn't that book either, but it's cool. It's an analysis of the data collected through Project FeederWatch, a survey of bird feeder birds across North America begun in 1987. It's organized by species, which each bird getting a clear drawing, description, and a map showing geographical distribution and abundance. Even more helpful is a list of what each bird likes to eat best.

Prize for weirdest bird feeder story goes to the woman who dragged two horse carcasses home from the vet and counted the vultures who came to clean up.

This book is much closer to what I want, and is probably worth buying, but I still want some kind of beginner's guide to feeding Toronto birds (and not Toronto squirrels). The search continues.

Writers Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt-Thomas is a guide to writing all kinds of query letters: queries for magazines, books, agents, columns. There are lots of examples, both good and bad, and several lists of "don'ts" to ensure that your query at least doesn't suck. Which seems good enough to get onto a few editors' short lists.

Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer by Moira Anderson Allen is a catch-all guide to working as a magazine writer. It includes information on finding markets, developing ideas, writing queries, formatting manuscripts, and more.

There's also a compelling chapter on business writing, guest-written by Peter Bowerman. He makes it sound easy to earn money by writing, and I'll definitely check out his book, The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency As A Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less. (Seems like we're veering into snake oil territory again.)

My Christmas List

No-one is actually going to get me any of this stuff, because we don't do presents for grown-ups, but that hasn't stopped me from accumulating a list of material desires.

Cool skullcandy earphones. I have these lame over-the-head earbud-ish earphones which always fall out of my ears, and I'm pretty sure most of the sound goes somewhere other than into my head. I'm torn between big fat earphones so everyone can tell I'm listening to music (and not to them fighting, say), or little wee earbuds that I can stash in my purse. Only if they come with a little wind-ey holder for the wire, though. I get so tired of unwinding headphone wires.

Freddie Demistache. I love moustaches, I love Freddie. I love jewellery. I think this is brilliant.

Starbucks Takeout Mug, Tall Size. Blake has his giant Venti mug which he brings every time we go to Starbucks, and I feel left out.

Oui by Lancome perfume. I haven't worn perfume since Delphine was born and I miss it.

A waffle iron.

What Not To Wear on DVD. I know, it seems like an odd show to buy, but ever since we cancelled cable I haven't been able to watch it—it's not downloadable anywhere. (The problem with downloading shows is that the less geeky they are, the less likely anyone has uploaded them.) Anyway, I miss Stacy and Clinton and all their advice and ideas.

Delphine Writes To Santa

Delphine Writes To Santa
To Santa: I Would Like
  • a doll
  • a marble run
  • a marble [in case they don't ship them with the marble run, I guess]
  • a fairy dress
  • a book of poems
  • a Word Girl chapter book
  • a deck of cards
  • an iPod (earphones) [she doesn't like to leave things to chance]
  • a watch
  • a mug I can paint

I asked her about the iPod (because sad to say, we don't listen to much music) - she said she wanted to play games.

Positive Parenting: Case Study #1

Positive parenting, or democratic parenting, is essentially parenting as if your children are human beings who deserve the same amount of respect as the adults in the household. It is about raising your children to understand that they are part of a community, with rights and obligations, and it's about getting them to behave without punishments or rewards. It's also evidence-based parenting, with a grounding in scientific research and knowledge of neurological development and psychology.

I was raised with respect and I want to raise my children with respect, so I am using the tools of positive parenting to guide me.

My leaders in this endeavour are Alfie Kohn and Alyson Schäfer. They have both written excellent books on the subject. Both Alyson Schäfer's books are about positive parenting (although I prefer The Good Mom Myth), and Alfie Kohn's parenting book is called Unconditional Parenting. If you're interested in positive parenting I recommend you pick up one or both of those books. (And then everything else Kohn has written, because he's awesome.)

I'm not an expert on psychology or positive parenting, so I'm not going to give out advice here, but what I will do is write about situations in our house, and how we managed them. Some of these situations go smoothly, some of them don't, so I'll talk about what I think worked, and what I wish I had done differently. I hope this will give other parents some ideas about how to parent positively, and I'll admit I hope that rehashing these situations will reinforce my knowledge of positive parenting, and help me apply positive parenting techniques more often.

What Happened: Today Delphine (6) was invited to a friend's birthday party. Fifteen minutes before we were to leave for the party, I told Delphine it was time to get ready. She was wearing a stained t-shirt and a pair of leggings with a hole in it, so I told her she would have to change into something nicer.

She hated that idea. She wanted to wear what she was wearing, because (she said) she didn't have any other leggings. (It was a gymnastics party so she wanted to wear leggings rather than jeans or a skirt.) I stuck to my guns and explained that in our culture we show respect for people by wearing clean clothes to their gatherings. Delphine countered with "But Erika won't care!" Which is probably true, but I pointed out that Erika's mom will care, and she did most of the work for the party. We finally got to the point where I said I wouldn't take her to the party unless she had some clean clothes on.

The situation was resolved by Blake going upstairs with Delphine to help her pick out something appropriate—she ended up borrowing a pair of leggings from Cordelia. It took quite a lot of gentle persuasion and friendly helpfulness from Blake to get everything smoothed over.

What I Wish I Had Done: I wish I had started the whole conversation by saying "In our culture, we show respect and affection for people by wearing clean, tidy clothes to their special occasions. Are you happy with the clothes you're wearing, or would you like to find something else?" Alyson Schäfer (can I just call her Alyson?) calls that TTFT, or Take Time For Training. Usually she's talking about more mechanical things, like doing up a zipper or cleaning a bathroom, but it applies to social conventions, too. Giving Delphine ownership of the problem would make her feel responsible, and there's a pretty good chance she would have just changed without a fuss.

If she still protested I could have gone with the "when-then" tactic: "When you're dressed for a birthday party, then I will take you to the party." That's a little more coercive because I'm basically saying, "I won't take you to the party until you're dressed the way I want you to be dressed", but the wording is impersonal and it does reflect the needs of the situation (societal norms) rather than what I want. (Rather conveniently, what I want is for Delphine to conform to societal norms. When she's older she can go to parties dressed like a slob, but she's still young enough that I don't think she fully understands the messages that dressing inappropriately sends.)

Finally I wish we had started the whole thing earlier. One of Alfie Kohn's parenting guidelines is "Don't be in a hurry", and it's great advice if you can manage it. So much household tension is caused by running short of time. If I had left more time, we might still have had the drama but at least it wouldn't have forced us to rush out the door after Delphine got changed.

In the end, Delphine got to the party on time, in nice clean clothes, and hopefully we all learned something.