Amy

Looking Back: 2015

I'm going to go out on a sturdy limb and say 2015 wasn't one of my best years. It wasn't an unqualified disaster, though. Let's start at the beginning.

The year started off phone-free, because I dropped my phone down a drain in December 2013. I stubbornly tried to manage without buying a new iPhone, but I finally gave up and blew the $600 or whatever on an unlocked replacement. I'm much more careful with my phone outside, now, so I guess I grew as a person.

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A Letter to My Mother on what would have been her 81st Birthday

Dear Mum,

Today would have been your birthday. It’s been three and a half months since you died, and I thought you might like an update.

I know that of all the places you’re likely to be (and I expect you’re probably not actually anywhere, although Shirley thinks you’re in the blue jays) the Internet is the least likely, so I’m not sure why I’m posting this online. Maybe, like everything else post-mortem, it’s for me, not for you --- on account of you’re dead.

I hope being dead is working out for you. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were really a heaven, and you could be with your dad and your sister again? Maybe even your handsome first husband, who you loved so much. (I didn’t find any pictures of him in your stuff --- but there were pictures of Dad’s first wife. You were way prettier.)

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A Pocket of Calm

We don’t get a fog a lot in Toronto, and on a foggy night about a month ago the Christmas lights were particularly lovely -- dreamy and soft. I was on the way home from a meeting and thought the lights on house on a corner were so pretty, I wanted to take a picture to show the girls. I paused at the curb opposite the house, and took my phone out of my pocket. I still had my mittens on, but I needed my fingers to use the phone, so I wedged the phone in my left hand, wedged between my fingers and the fleshy base of my thumb. I used my fingertips and thumb to remove the mitten from my right hand, and as I did so the phone slipped, or my grip relaxed. For the longest second ever recorded, my phone fell toward the storm drain I had just realized I was standing above.

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New Year’s Resolutions

I know. It’s a bit late. I meant to post this earlier, but then life…

(And I realized that the reason you post your New Year’s Resolutions as soon as you can is that it’s embarrassing to post them after you’ve already broken them.)

Here they are:

1. Increase my machine time at the gym from 20 minutes to 30 minutes.

My gym routine is almost literally the least I can do: twenty minutes on a machine, usually the elliptical, and then fifteen minutes or more of stretching. I’m really there for the stretching, because if I don’t do it regularly sooner or later my back goes into spasm.

But I figured another ten minutes can’t be too hard to come by, and a bit more cardio three or four times a week can’t be a bad idea.

2. Double-veg

Another simple one: whenever I have fruit or vegetables, have twice as much. I like fruit and vegetables, and it’s really only habit which stops me from eating more of them.

3. Write more.

This is your classic poorly-planned, doomed-to-fail resolution. There is no plan here, no list of steps, no schedule, just a vague intention to “write more”.

Nothing specific, not a novel or poems or a book on the history of quick breads, but more little things: more book reviews on Goodreads, more blog posts, more letters to family, more entries in my journal.

Needless to say, this one needs more work. I don’t want to give it up, though.

2013 Year in Review

I'm writing this a little late, as it's already 2014. I suppose this way I can be sure I'm not missing anything, as one never knows if 11:42 pm on December 31 might be the highlight of the year.

Well, it wasn't. But at about that time someone did ask me what the highlight of 2013 was, and I was stumped. I thought of our trip to Buffalo, but that was in December; not even a month prior. So to write this post I'm going to have to look at calendars, to-do lists, photos, old emails... Clearly my own brain won't suffice.

In January I wrapped up work on Shamans Among Us with Joseph Polimeni. I edited and typeset the book, as well as designing the cover and overseeing proofreading and website design. It was a fascinating book to work on; I learned a tremendous amount.

But after Shamans wrapped I set aside my editing work to join Greg Wilson at Software Carpentry. That's a big deal, really. It's my first regular, non-freelance job since Delphine was born. It's so nice to be part of a team, to be useful and wanted for something other than knowing where the clean socks are and what we're having for dinner.

We all did a lot of travelling this year, mostly by ourselves. Delphine went to a few Guide camps and week-long sleepover camp in summer, and Cordelia went to Brownie camp. Blake went to Pittsburgh, London, Brussels, San Francisco and Minneapolis, and I went to Portland OR, Boston, and London (but not at the same time as Blake). The girls and I went to Saskatchewan in June, and in December we all went to Buffalo, which sounds lame but might have been the best trip of all.

In June my first-cousin-once-removed Emily came to visit with her boyfriend Dan. I never met her before (I don't think? I feel like I should know this) so that was pretty cool, because she's awesome and Dan is too. The girls loved them because Emily is from New Zealand and that's pretty much Middle Earth, and because Dan played Lord of the Rings Risk with them. (Emily was also written up in the Huffington Post, which is more than pretty much anyone else I know can say.)

This is a pretty uneventful year in review, so I guess 2013 was a pretty uneventful year. I'm okay with that! I hope 2014 is also uneventful, and with some interesting trips. And maybe more cats.

Ice Storm Christmas

On Saturday, December 21 the girls and Blake and I went to a Christmas carolling party at a friend’s house. We sang lots of old-fashioned Christmas carols (the ones they don’t sing at school because there’s too much Christmas in them) and drank wine and talked about the coming storm. “Charge your phones,” I said, “make sure you have milk and bread!”

“Is it going to be all that bad?” My friends moved here from England just over a year ago — they weren’t here for the ice storm in Ottawa and Quebec back in 1998.

“It could be nothing, or it could be a few days without power,” I said.

By the time we left it was raining, cold hard rain which was starting to freeze on the ground. Blake walked us home and went out again to meet some friends at a pub. I plugged my phone in, made sure my computer was charged, tucked the girls in and headed to bed with The Sea-Captain’s Wife.

Sunday, December 22

When we woke up the power was out but the house was still warm. I lit some candles and boiled a saucepan of water for tea. I shuffled to the gym and back, and the power came back on around 10:30. Easy!

The city was covered in ice, part of the subway was shut down and people were being advised not to go out if they didn’t need to, but Delphine and I had tickets for the Sing-Along Messiah. When we heard at around 11:00 that Massey Hall was open and the Sing-Along Messiah was on, we still weren't sure whether to go or not.

My friends who were going to come with us decided not to go --- they told a very long story about a branch in their driveway and ice on their car and the subway might not be running and it would be hard and they’d rather just not bother. That was disappointing and we thought about staying home too, but we decided that an adventure of any kind would be preferable to staying cooped up at home being sullen.

Waiting for the bus, a lady shuffled towards us with unkemped hair and flushed skin, sprinkling rock salt from a gallon jug on the sidewalk ahead of her. “The subway isn’t running from Eglinton to Bloor,” she said. “No trains! They’re running shuttle buses!” Again we thought about giving up, but decided to forge ahead.

At Yonge Street three shuttle buses drove past, each too crammed to pick anyone up. A small CBC TV crew was shooting some B-roll of people giving up; Delphine wanted to be interviewed for TV but they found someone less hopeful.

Finally I decided to work around the Yonge Street problem altogether by catching the number 14 bus over to the University-Spadina line. The number 14 was diverting from its usual route because of branches on the roads, too, but it was only a twenty minute ride to Glencairn

The subway train we caught at Glencairn was the Hobbit train, which pretty much made the whole trip worthwhile. We got to Dundas station ten minutes before show time and didn’t miss a single note. Dame Emma Kirkby sang. (I wonder how she enjoyed it.) There might have been a bit of a trainwreck in the Amen fugue, but we pulled it together with lots of help from Ivars. Delphine had a good time and she’s starting to learn the choruses and sing along. All in all, going was absolutely the right choice.

After the sing-along we wandered the mall with Janet, who had joined us for Messiah, and then met Blake and Cordelia for dinner. We ate at Mr Greenjeans, our favourite mall restaurant. After a lot of food we went home and noticed that it was very dark on our block; the power had just gone off again.

Monday, December 23

The lights were still out Monday morning. I was supposed to go grocery shopping for Christmas dinner ingredients, but the grocery store was closed. I’m actually not sure what we did all day; cooking and washing dishes, tending to candles. I wrapped Blake’s Christmas gifts in the basement by the light of a single candle. I spent a lot of time checking the @TorontoHydro Twitter account. The girls and Blake decorated their gingerbread houses, which they had cleverly baked the day before the power went out.

At 8:45 pm on Monday, after the power had been out for over 24 hours, it was 16.3° Celsius in the house. People kept inviting us over to their house to warm up, and I didn’t realize why until later when I heard that other houses cooled down to 10 degrees and lower within a day. I don’t think there’s any one thing which made our house stay so warm; it’s a combination of factors:

  • really small house (about 1200 square foot)
  • a layer of rigid foam insulation on the inside of every outside wall (making the house even smaller)
  • semi-detached, so one wall of the house is insulated by an entire other house
  • protected on the north side by another house which is about three feet away
  • newish, small windows
  • honeycomb blinds

And finally, we have a gas water heater and a gas stove, so we were able to warm the place up with hot showers and cooking. I'm feeling pretty good about our little house these days.

Tuesday, December 24

On Christmas Eve morning it was 13.4°C when we woke up; it went up to 15.3°C by the end of breakfast. We went out for lunch and to see The Hobbit; when we got home the temperature had gone down to 11.4°C. We lit some candles and made pasta for dinner, and managed to drag the temperature up to 13°C before bed. Blake and I had to stay up later than the girls because of Christmas, but I lit lots of candles and we managed.

Christmas Day

When we woke up on Christmas Day it was 9.3ºC, which is perhaps too cold for comfort. But Christmas, like the show, must go on, so we made tea and breakfast and lit a bunch of candles and opened presents. Lots of books, lots of chocolate and lots of Lego, so satisfactory all ‘round. Oh, and the girls got rubber swords, which they immediately fought over. Of course.

After opening presents we went over to Baba’s house to warm up, do the cryptic, read (me), knit (Delphine), and watch TV (Cordelia). I kept checking Twitter for news about the power, and at around 3:30 I got a text message from a neighbour to say we were back on. Hooray — we could sleep at home!

The biggest conundrum of the no-power Christmas was where, and if, Christmas dinner would happen. Normally I host, and I was thinking about cancelling dinner, but my sister-in-law is the best ever and offered to have it at her place rather than cancel or postpone. So I brought Christmas pudding and cookies, and made Yorkshire puddings to go with the roast beef, and it was delicious and perfect. And the evening ended very satisfactorily, in our own cozy little house.

Thomas

Early Thursday morning our sweet Thomas died. He was twenty-one years old.

For the last day or so he'd been wheezing a little bit, and at about three in the morning he was making so much noise with every breath that he woke us both. He was curled up on the foot of the bed, his head bobbing up and down and his abdomen sucking in with with the effort of every breath. There was a puddle of urine on the floor; he had been too weak to go down to the basement, but was still sweet and well-mannered enough to get off the bed to pee.

I realized he would have to go to the vet right away, and I was pretty sure this was it for him. Blake woke up the girls to say goodbye while I got dressed and called a cab.

The receptionist at the vet called the triage nurse who took Thomas into the back straight away. I was asked to wait in a examining room. After a few minutes the vet came out -- she was short, pretty, youngish, a little plump, with a pierced lip.

She said Thomas had fluid around his lungs --- pleural effusion. It might be caused by heart disease, a tumour, or it might be idiopathic --- caused by nothing in particular. Heart disease, after being confirmed by a cardiologist, could be treated (with an unpredictable degree of success) with medicine. A tumour could only be treated with surgery, and the only treatment for idiopathic pleural effusion would be to drain it, keep Thomas in the clinic for twelve hours, and see how long the fluid took to come back.

Surgery was out of the question, and I didn't see much point in putting Thomas on yet more medicine. Draining and waiting would be torture. I asked for a minute to talk to Blake on the phone, and we decided it was time.

The vet agreed that this was a sensible course of action, and the nurses brought Thomas into the little examining room and gave me a few minutes to say goodbye. They brought a tank of oxygen so he wouldn't have to work so hard to breathe, which was wonderful except it made him seem like his old self again; he was breathing so easily, I didn't know if we had made the right choice. It wasn't until he had his face away from the oxygen for a few minutes that he started to wheeze again and I remembered how miserable he'd been.

I gave him lots of scratches, and whispered to him what a good cat he was, what a handsome boy, how much we loved him and how much we would miss him. At first he lay there, but soon he half-stood and start to nose around the examining table. The vet had put in an IV line in his left foreleg, taped with blue tape, and he shook his leg in irritation. I kept wanting to say "It's okay, it will be off soon," but I couldn't. He gently head-butted me one, two, three times. He was never very affectionate, but the awkward head-butt was his quiet way of showing love.

Finally, after a lot of tears, the vet came in and talked a little bit about what would happen. She let me stroke Thomas as she injected the drugs. He didn't die as quickly as Mimi had -- she was gone before the syringe was half-empty, but Thomas took a little longer. Not much, though; within seconds his head came to rest chin-down on the table and he was still. His eyes were open but empty, like the eyes of an Egyptian statue. He was still beautiful.

The vet let me have another moment alone with him; I kissed him on the head and told him again that I loved him, then started to go out the door. I was about to close it behind me but changed my mind and went back in for one more stroke, one more kiss, one more look at my beautiful grey boy.

Two Things About Time

I've finally admitted that most of my non-kid-related posts to this blog are about my struggle to use my time wisely, so I created a "time" category. However, I'm not going to move all my old "time" blog posts into it. I just don't have the time.

However, this post is a pleasant change from my usual moaning about not having enough time. I have actually learned two things about time.

Slack

A few years ago I read a review of Tom DeMarco's Slack. I'm not sure what the book is actually about (and I don't want to look it up right now lest I lose track of my thought) but what I took away from the review is that piling your employees with the absolute maximum amount of work they can handle is not effective. People and systems need enough available slack to deal with crises as they arise. (Also people, especially people doing creative work, do some of their best work when they have a chance to be idle, to chat with coworkers, to just think. I'm pretty sure that I learned that since, though.)

At the time I thought the slack theory sounded very credible, mostly because it validated my own work-related misery and exhaustion at the time. (In retrospect that's laughable; I hadn't had kids yet and had no idea what being too busy meant; I was miserable and exhausted at work for other reasons.) But it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that it occurred to me that the principal of incorporating slack applies to individuals as much as it does to companies. When your everyday life is crammed to the brim, you have no recourse when a family member gets sick, a neighbour adopts a baby or a friend loses a parent; you have to either abandon something important or let someone down.

At the moment my schedule is crammed full; between household maintenance and childcare and child management and choir and school choir and friends and working out and, of course, work, I have no slack. And there's nothing I want to give up.

However, I'm trying to let things fall away and not replace them. I have stuck to my resolution to not take up the eco-committee chair position at school; I have stubbornly refused to take on any other major school volunteer jobs; I have even declined to arrange social events.

My plan, and I think it's rather clever, is to fill my slack time with a space-holder hobby: something worth doing but which I don't mind setting aside if I'm needed for something more important. I have a needlework project which my father started as he was beginning to sink into dementia; he abandoned it when he was moved into the nursing home, and I brought it home with this summer. I want to finish it but I don't mind how long it takes. That will be my time-space-holder. Just as soon as I find some time to hold.


Time Panic

In the October 5 issue of New Scientist Debora MacKenzie reviews three books about pursuing happiness. Part of her review is about how scarcity inspires obsession:

...the brain focuses ferociously on what it feels is lacking. This reflex evolved to help us find what we need. The team's real insight is that it applies to all scarcities, not just of money, but of time and even social contact. We "tunnel" in on the scarcity and ignore anything outside.

All that scarcity messes with how we manage the resource in question.

The future looks less menacing than the scarcity we face now. So we borrow money, then borrow more, disregarding future costs as interest mounts, until we are deeply in debt.

This is exactly what I do when I feel overwhelmed with things to do. Instead of taking the time to figure out how to best spend my time, I panic and either avoid everything or just do the first thing I put my hands on, which is sometimes helpful, and often not. At the end of the day I'm exhausted, anxious, and no further ahead.

Uuh, I'm not sure what the takeaway is from this particular clue, apart from that I need to notice when I'm flailing and take a deep breath. It might seem like I don't have time to take a deep breath, but really I don't have time not to.

Birthday 38: Another Post About Time

It's time for another birthday post. I'm not sure if I manage to write one every year, although I always feel I should. It seems as good an opportunity as any to catch up on everything, sitting here on my back deck on a cool summer day, enjoying the dappled shade of the silver maple.

I should be hanging a load of laundry that Blake washed.

I should be working. I think. Should I be working? It's Sunday, but then I don't work full time the rest of the week, so maybe Sunday is a good time to catch up? I worked a couple of hours today already, but there's still plenty to do, and if I don't do it today I will only have to do it tomorrow while facing an onrush of new work as everyone gets to the office.

So, I don't know if I should be working.

Time dismays me. This blog knows that, for one thing because I hardly ever post — I just don't have time — and for another because when I do post it's often about time. I have so much that I have to do, and so much that I'd like to do, and I don't know where to find the time.

This is what I do now:

I work. I have a regular job with an organization now (as opposed to a freelance publishing gig), although only part time. It's supposed to be two hours a day, but my boss keeps casually referring to it as half-time, which it really should be because I have so much to do. This summer, especially, I'm having a hard time keeping up. At least once a week I get a worried email from a workshop host or instructor asking if I've had a chance to put up that website or set up that registration page or process those receipts. Right now I have eleven emails which I have flagged to remind me that they're Urgent and should be Attended To With Haste. Then there are the other forty-four emails which can wait, although if I leave them long enough they may well become the other kind.

I parent. This means that I spend time with the girls, of course. It's summer and they have only been in one two-week day camp, so we've gone on a few adventures and worked on a big jigsaw puzzle. (Conclusion: "I don't really like jigsaw puzzles, Mummy.") They're still good fun, although they're having a fractious summer in each other's company. Neither of them seems to have the social skills to tolerate the other's foibles, or to de-escalate disagreements. Sibling rivalry is supposed to teach this kind of thing, but so far it doesn't seem to be working. Maybe they need to be older. But when they're not fighting they're good friends, and they love each other even if they wouldn't admit it.

The other side of parenting is management. I never realized how much management there is to being a modern parent — I don't think it came up in any of the books or magazine articles I read. Spending hours researching extra-curricular activities and school programs, filling in registration forms, buying clothes and equipment, organizing calendars, emailing babysitters, scheduling playdates — none of that was part of mothering as I understood it.

You may think: But you've been a mother for over ten years, why is this bothering you now? The thing is, the paperwork side of mothering only seems to grow as the children's needs and challenges become more complicated (and expensive). As the nitty-gritty side of diapers and snacks and bloody knees diminishes the administrative side inflates.

But I was relieved to come across a passage in Rumer Godden's Home is the Sailor about the children setting up the mother doll at a desk with piles of paper, where she would spend most of her days ordering things and organizing the children's lives. Even in 1964, apparently, mothers had lots of paperwork to do.


I also look after the house and the finances and the cat.

The house needs the usual upkeep (although I am supported in that by a biweekly house cleaner) as well as identification and resolution of various old-house problems. We're still dealing with the leaky bathroom situation; also a chunk fell off the outside dining room windowsill; also the paint is peeling on the window frames outside. There are problems with chattels, too: the dryer is broken, the couch is ready for the landfill, and the cushions for the deck furniture need new covers. It's true that the more you own, the more it costs, in time and money.


I also do things for myself, a little bit. I read, not as much as I'd like to. I go to the gym most mornings, which isn't fun per se, but it's the only time I let myself read New Scientist, so that part is fun. Also fun is how flexible and energetic and, I admit, smug I feel after the workout is over.

Lately I've been amusing myself with nail colour. My friend Karen D, who used to be into quilting, is now into nail polish, and her thoughtful posts and juicy pictures made me want to paint my nails too. It seems like a fairly harmless pleasure: it's not expensive, it doesn't take much time (okay, I do manicures while I'm working — I can type without smudging wet polish) and it gives me inordinate pleasure.

And I indulge myself with plenty of social time. I don't go on many organized outings with friends, apart from book club and the odd lunch, but I don't begrudge myself a nice chat when I bump into a friend on the street or at the start or end of a playdate. Apart from how good it makes me feel (I'm an extrovert), I know that having rich social connections is as healthy as working out.


I don't think I waste a lot of time. I have a somewhat, I think, precocious sense of my own mortality. It came upon me a couple of years ago when I realized that my to-be-read list was getting longer at a greater rate than I was reading books, leading to the obvious conclusion that I would die before I was done reading. (A slight digression: I don't understand people who "don't know what to read next". Do they not have hundreds of books waiting for them in lists or piles? Why don't they?) This awareness leads me to a somewhat panicked fear of wasting time. I've come to realize that some things which might seem like a waste of time, like walking places or hanging out with friends or just sitting thinking, are not a waste of time but rather essential to happiness and long life. But I'm constantly on guard against time misspent.

I'm somewhat heartened by the fact that life seems to go on for a long time. I'm often surprised to realize that people who were grown-up and doing things when I was a kid are still active and doing things now. The books of Judy Blume were already dated when I read them (Sanitary pads with belts? Wha?) but she's now active on Twitter and overseeing movie versions of her books. Hal Johnson and Joanne McLeod made my childhood miserable with their shame-inducing Body Break segments, and now they're on Amazing Race Canada, still fit and chipper as ever. (I suppose I can be thankful that Slim Goodbody isn't on Survivor.)

What I'm saying is, even though it may seem that being almost-forty and having done basically nothing useful with my life is an unrecoverable failure, the fact is I probably have at least another forty years ahead of me, and I don't have to waste twenty-two of this batch in growing up and going to school.

And now I'd better go hang that laundry while there's still enough daytime for it to dry in.