Amy (old posts, page 33)

Books for the Beginning of 2010

Twelve Books That Changed the World by Melvyn Bragg is a book that introduces itself. I believe it's a tie-in book to a TV series, the kind of TV series that could only be produced in England. The books range from the St James Bible to Mary Woolstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and, curiously, Rules of Association Football. Each book is described, put into context, and Bragg makes his arguments for why it belongs in this list. This is a great introduction to some seminal written works, but also a brisk and effective overview of some high points of our society's history.

Further Under the Duvet by Marian Keyes was recommended to me by someone on Twitter (I think it was FlossieTeacake) after a discussion of villa-itis, or the fear that you are going to run out of bread while staying at a French villa. (I have a chronic case of villa-itis which is villa-independent.) The book is a collection of personal essays and short stories. Keyes is an Irish writer with an extraordinary Cinderella story of going from abject alcoholism to fame and riches as a writer. The story is told in the book, along with essays on various topics including the joy of writing a makeup column (free samples!), air-guitar championships, shopping and plenty of chocolate. Funny and sweet.

Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen is yet another positive/democratic/whatever parenting book. I don't know why I keep reading them, since I more-or-less know what I'm doing by now, but it's good to be reminded, and I do pick up different ideas from the various books. This particular book reminded me of the importance of family meetings, and reassured me that some problems (namely chores) will have to be revisited at regular intervals but are still worth handling democratically. I wouldn't call this my favourite democratic parenting book—it's just not funny enough. But it's worth a look if you need a refresher (or an introduction to positive parenting) or if you want a new angle.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson is our first book club book of the year, and already this year's book club roster is looking better than last year's. The Gargoyle is about a man who gets terribly burned in a car crash, then meets a mysterious woman with a bizarre past while he's recovering. It's about love and redemption and all that good stuff, with a big dose of history. It's beautifully written and I didn't want it to end.

The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande. I have long been a fan of the checklist. I like to-do lists to keep my days focused, I like lists of things to take places, I like to record our daily routines in list form so nothing is forgotten. This book is the validation for my checklist habit: Gawande writes about how checklists can improve the outcome of extremely complex projects, such as construction projects, and surgeries. Checklists are already in use in construction and aviation, and the book centres on Gawande and his team's attempt to create a checklist to reduce the number of fatalities as a result of surgeries. It's not a smooth path, but along the way we learn the kinds of checklists (DO-CONFIRM and READ-DO), what makes a good checklist (not too much information, easy to read), what makes a bad checklist (too long), and the mind-boggling difference that a checklist can make in a process that everyone involved feels is already going pretty well. (Gawande uses his own checklist, and at first he thought it wouldn't make much difference to his outcomes. As it turns out, not a week goes by that the checklist doesn't catch something he would have missed, and it has even saved at least one life on his watch).

As usual, Gawande is engaging and convincing. This was a great read as well as a confirmation (and refinement) of my love for checklists.

Weekend Matinees

You might know that, until recently, Delphine was just too sensitive to watch movies. Any kind of suspense or peril would send her running for the farthest corner of the house. But lately she's become more blase about everything, and she is much cooler about scary bits in movies. "Actually this is pretty scary," she will say, while holding her ground on the couch. So, we've been watching movies.

We started a while ago with The Sound of Music, which is really quite scary what with the Nazis and all. (Although Delphine was more scared of the stern father.) Then a few weeks ago we rented Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, then Nanny McPhee. We decided to have a regular movie night every weekend. After some discussion we've decided to have matinees so as to avoid too much pre-bedtime excitement and bad dreams. I'm excited to introduce the girls to some great movies, and to get back to watching movies myself, even if only PG-rated ones.

Last week we watched Star Wars (the original one). Cordelia was really excited to see it, and Delphine enjoyed it in the end. I think they both liked making sense of all the stuff the boys in their classes jabber about. Although Delphine was very confused as to why Ethan would dress up as a bad guy—Darth Vader—for Halloween. I couldn't help her.

Here's our list of movies to see:

  • Bedknobs and Broomsticks
  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
  • Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
  • Mary Poppins
  • Fiddler on the Roof
  • Toy Story
  • Beauty and the Beast
  • The Princess and the Frog
  • Alladin
  • The Aristocats? (This is the first movie I saw in a theatre, but I can't remember if I liked it.)
  • Shrek
  • The Lion King
  • The Iron Giant
  • It's a Wonderful Life
  • The Muppet Movie
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
  • Darby O'Gill and the Little People
  • The Incredibles
  • Nightmare Before Christmas
  • Escape from Witch Mountain
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (maybe later)
  • The Princess Bride
  • E.T.
  • Fantasia
  • Babe
  • Ferris Bueller's Day Off
  • Miracle on 34th Street
  • The Parent Trap
  • Swiss Family Robinson
  • My Neighbour Totoro

Any other classic, or great, kid or kid-friendly movies we should see? Dave, what about Miyazaki? What do you like?

(Oh, and Columbine's post about Alice in Wonderland is quite apropos.)

What I Learned When Blake Was Away

Blake has been away for two weeks on business. It's the first time he's ever been away for more than a couple of nights, and before he left I was worried that it would be impossible and miserable to manage by myself.

Blake's coming home tonight, and his absence has taught me a few things:

Blake doesn't do much around the house. I've suspected this for a long time, but now I'm sure. I didn't perceive any change in the amount of housework or childcare I do from when he was here to when he wasn't. Obviously this sucks and has to change. I get that he has a job and earns all the money, but I work hard too and I think everyone should help out at home, I don't want my children growing up thinking that housework is women's work, and I can't do any kind of freelance work or self-improvement if I'm spending all my time doing other people's scut work.

Sorry, that turned out to be kind of a rant, didn't it?

Anyway, that led me quite smoothly to realization number two: I don't need him. Obviously I love him, and of course we need his healthy income. What I mean is I don't need him to keep the house and family running: I can manage by myself. This is tremendously empowering. I was honestly worried that somehow everything would fall apart without Blake here. That I would fall apart without him. (Yes, apparently being married has turned me into a jelly.)

This leads, somewhat less directly, to the next realization: I still want him around. We've been married for ten years, and we're attached to each other through this house, through the children, and through habit. Sometimes it seems like all those things are doing the work of keeping us together, and the spark and affection which brought us together in the first place has become irrelevant.

I'm trying to write about this without making it sound like I've been plotting a divorce. I swear I haven't, I love being married to Blake and we're always going to be awesome together. But for a while there it looked like we were together because I didn't have any choice. Now that I know I have a choice, however hypothetical, it makes it much more satisfying to be together. It means we're here because we want to be—because we like each other—not because it's the only option.

Here's another thing I learned: I don't do housework either. I never thought I was doing housework for Blake's benefit, but the house has gotten slightly more disheveled than usual in the last two weeks. It's not so much that I'm cleaning for Blake—I don't think he could care less. It's more that having another adult around adds a level of accountability that keeps me honest. If I can get away with it, I don't clean. Good thing I had company today: at least the main floor and the bathroom are clean.

I noticed is that I'm a lot happier to do the housework I do do when I don't have someone to resent for not doing it instead. I think once we've worked out some kind of respectable chore schedule I'll be much happier to do my jobs, secure in the knowledge that I'm not doing all the jobs.

Last one: it's nice to be the only decision-maker. Not so nice that I'd want to do it all the time, but there is something about not having to discuss everything: meals, plans, jobs, whose turn it is in the shower, all that chatter and negotiation. It's not something that bothers me normally, but it's nice when it's not there, like the silence when the power goes out.

Tonight the silence ends and we get our man back. I wasn't happy to see him go, but I'll be very happy to have him back, with a little wisdom under my belt.

More Mornings

Since last week we've been continuing the pleasantifying of mornings, and with one little hiccup yesterday, I think it's working.

To review, this is how it goes: we get up and have breakfast together, then I go and shower and leave the children the following list:

  1. two trips to the kitchen
  2. pack snack
  3. get dressed
  4. brush teeth
  5. brush hair

To which Delphine inevitably adds a sixth item: Play. I think they're finally understanding that Play can only come after (and if) every other thing is done.

Cathy suggested creating a colourful chart listing the morning routine, but Delphine is text-oriented and a list nerd like me, so the staid to-do list format works for her. I write a new list every day, and she solemnly X'es off the things she's finished. It works for both girls, even though Cordelia doesn't read yet, because Delphine's essentially in charge of Cordelia in the morning, and Cordelia doesn't mind. (Your mileage may vary.)

Yesterday I didn't include "brush hair" on the list, and when I announced "we have to leave in five minutes" Delphine rashly concluded they had time to play because they were "almost done". Cordelia came downstairs with every intention of playing and justly rebelled when I said I had to brush her hair first. She dug her heels in and I lost my temper and hollered at them. I'm not sure why I took it so badly—could be that I didn't get enough sleep, or I was worried that I would miss a 9:00 appointment. Fortunately Delphine stepped up and was the grown-up. She brushed Cordelia's hair and her own, and helped us all get out of the house in good time.

Today our morning went smooth as butter: I didn't leave anything off the list, and the children didn't muck about. We arrived at school in plenty of time, with no shouting. It probably didn't hurt that the kids were in bed early last night.

I should add that one of the keys to this working is that I studiously don't care what their snacks look like (apart from that they have to contain fruit). Today Cordelia took a little container with some pretzel sticks and a dried apricot—no snack bag, no drink. It's certainly not how I would do it, but I expect it will be good enough for her, plus she has the satisfaction of having created and packed her own snack.

Another thing I cultivate a lack of interest in is what the children wear. Today Cordelia wore a black dance leotard with teal leggings, which might just be a little too gorgeous for kindergarten. Delphine has been dressing herself sensibly (but with a certain flair) since forever, and fortunately she's happy to choose Cordelia's clothes too, on the days Cordelia's not interested.

So, for now, mornings are a success story. As the girls grow and the dynamic between them changes, I guess our mornings will change too, and of course the success of mornings will depend on how well-rested we all are, but for now I'm happy that we have laid the groundwork for a functional start to the day.

Morning is Broken

I'm not sure this is the post I want to post, but it's on my mind.

Today I did a positive parenting experiment. Normally Blake and I nag and cajole the girls through their morning, until we're all angry at each other and we end up rushing to school in a sweaty rush. Lousy way to start the day, so I decided to Schäfer it up: I would tell the girls what was expected of them and what I would do, and then I would step back and let them take responsibility for their morning routine.

They were forty minutes late for school.

Here's how it went down. We ate breakfast together, and then I went upstairs to take a shower and dress, with the following message: "You guys need to take your two trips [to the kitchen with stuff from the table], pack your lunches and snacks and get dressed. If you have time can you give Thomas his food and water?" At that point they had enough time to complete everything if they got on with it.

While I was in the shower they fought. While I was getting dressed they fought and then played. After I was dressed I came downstairs—the table was not cleared and they were both still in their pajamas. I carried on without agitation or urgency. I finished clearing the table while they played, them I folded laundry. At 8:30 I let them know the first bell was ringing at school—they were still in their pajamas, but at that point Delphine started to rush. She asked for, and received, help packing her lunch, while Cordelia stayed in her pajamas. Delphine tried to get Cordelia to hurry up, and she agreed to pack Cordelia's snack while she got dressed. Finally we left the house at 9:05, and signed in at school at around 9:20.

I was calm on the outside but on the inside I was freaking out while they played as if they hadn't a thing to do all day. It was a miracle of parental self-restraint. I didn't even nag on the way to school, I let being late speak for itself. (When you say "I told you so" or "let this be a lesson to you" it's called piggybacking and it turns a natural consequence into a punishment, which just gets you caught up in a power struggle and demotivates the child.) Being on time for school is not my problem, it's theirs. My job is to provide them with the tools and information to get to school on time.

Tonight we're going to have a family meeting to talk about mornings. My suggestion will be to make a morning routine poster, and I will let them know that a) I will only remind them of their morning responsibilities once, b) I will not play with them in the morning, and c) I will let them know what time it is every ten minutes. Hopefully they will come up with some ideas of how to stay focussed in the morning.

I hope tomorrow goes better. I know I'm supposed to be detached and aloof, but the school expects the parents to "get" their children to school on time, so I do feel responsible and guilty when they are late. Also, I have a few morning meetings and appointments coming up which I don't want to be late for. I'll have to review my parenting books and see what I'm supposed when my kids are making me late. In the meantime I will repeat the following phrase: "It will get worse before it gets better. It will get worse before it gets better."


What I Did Wrong: I sprung this new behaviour on them without warning. As I said, normally we nag and hustle and bother them all morning and I think that's where they get their clues as to how late they are and what they should be doing. Today I remained calm and I think the girls interpreted that to mean that we were on time, even though I told them in words that we weren't. Actions really do speak louder.

Also, we were running a teeny bit behind right from the start. Not behind enough to make us late, but behind enough that we needed to be brisk. So I would say I'm responsible for about five minutes of that forty. I would rather our mornings were leisurely but focussed, which will mean I need to be more disciplined about getting up and fixing breakfast on time.

What I Did Right: I think otherwise I applied the principles of positive parenting correctly. I remained kind yet firm, I didn't get into any power struggles, I told them what I would do rather than what they should do.

My Parenting Bookshelf

For the last six years I've been reading parenting books. I've read dozens of them, some good, some useless, but a handful stand out as books I've reached for time and again when I had a question or a problem, or just needed some reassuring company. These are the books I would buy (if I were rich) for every expecting mother I know.

Start At The Very Beginning

Well, not the very beginning—there are lots of books about pregnancy and childbirth out there, but childbirth is such an unpredictable and personal thing that you'd have to read a library's worth of books just to learn the handful of things which will apply to your situation. Your best bet is to find a good midwife and stay off the Internet.

Once the baby comes you'll want to feed it, and the best nursing advice I found (in book form—again, a trustworthy advisor is your best bet but unless you were clever enough to marry a lactation consultant you'll need a source of midnight advice) is Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett. The title is an exaggeration, of course—no book can make breastfeeding simple— but their advice is soothing, practical, and research-based.

After a while your baby will be ready for, as we call it, people food, and the best introduction to the subject is Better Baby Food: Your Essential Guide to Nutrition, Feeding and Cooking for All Babies and Toddlers by Daina Kalnins and Joanne Saab. Published by Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, this book introduces you to the nuts (actually no nuts) and bolts of feeding babies and small children, from nutrition advice to guidelines on when to introduce different foods. There are recipes for everything from purees to delicious entrees the whole family will enjoy. We love their hot and sour soup, and the chocolate chip oatmeal cookies are divine. There is a good mixture of healthy meals and homemade treats, plain food and sophisticated flavours. All the recipes are clearly written and easy to follow, with common ingredients.

My only caveat with Better Baby Food is that it was published before the latest advice moved weaning age up to six months, so their baby food recipes are suggested for four months and up.

Sleep, Gentle Sleep

The best sleep advice around is to be found in Dr. Marc Weissbluth's Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. Weissbluth is pragmatic, respectful of your child's need to sleep (and yours) and insistent on the importance of a good night's sleep. I wish the book were better edited, as it is sometimes hard to slog through his academic pontificating to get to the actual advice, but once you've found it it's gold. People keep borrowing my copy.

Dear God What Next?

Children change all the time; no sooner do you think you've figured your little one out then they become someone slightly different. I have often thought to myself, sometimes dispairingly, "Is this just a phase, or is this what she's really like?" The Your N-Year-Old series by Louise Bates Ames and Frances Lillian Ilg can help answer that question. Each book comes with a subtitle which is a teaser for what you can expect in that year of your child's life; your three-year-old is "Friend or Enemy", your four-year-old is, alarmingly, "Wild and Wonderful, but then you're rewarded with a "Sunny and Serene" five-year-old.

These books have given me perspective on what my children are going through developmentally and what I can expect from them, both good and bad. Now, when Cordelia throws a giant fit because I cut her toast the wrong way, I can just wait it out with a shrug—"She's four"—rather than dispairing that I've borne a drama queen and she'll always be like this. These books make it possible to untangle the influences of developmental stage from my children's real personalities.

Discipline

No less than four books (plus two) on this topic. They all cover about the same territory but in slightly different ways, so I suppose you could pick your favourite and just read that, but I find it's helpful to reinforce this stuff periodically, and this way you don't have to do it by rereading the same book over and over.

Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso, Positive Discipline by Dr. Jane Nelsen, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, and Breaking The Good Mom Myth by Alyson Schäfer are all books about positive parenting, or unconditional parenting, or democratic parenting, or Adlerian parenting, which are variations on a philosophy of parenting which regards children as full and equal members of the family with equal rights to respect and dignity. It's the style of parenting I have chosen because it seems most right and effective to me, and the books listed are all excellent guides to parenting in that style.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish is a light but effective guide to talking to your kids (rather than at them). This book is thick with specific ideas and techniques to help you communicate with your kids. The same authors wrote Siblings Without Rivalry, which teaches how to manage siblings, with plenty of examples, cartoons and summaries.

Reading

In between feeding, disciplining and putting your children to sleep you might want to spend some time with them, and a great way to do that is in the company of books. Babies Need Books: Sharing the Joy of Books with Children from Birth to Six by Dorothy Butler is an impassioned appeal to parents to read early and often. Butler tells us not only why and how we should read, but what, with long lists of great books for every stage from birth to six.

Perspective

In the thick of all this advice you'll want some perspective. Having a second child is a great way to get perspective, as well as a good dose of humility (if you thought your child's awesomeness was to your credit) or absolution (if you thought your child's horribleness was your fault). If you're not ready for another child, though, these books will put your parenting—and all the advice you're getting—into its proper context.

The amply sub-titled The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist's Notebook: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz is a collection of case studies of children who have gone though horrible trauma—abuse, cults, neglect—and what they can teach us about childhood development and resiliency. This book will help you because no matter what you're doing "wrong" you can't do as much harm to your child as has been done to these children, and because despite such miserable childhoods many of these kids go on to be normal, functioning adults.

Perfect Parents: Baby-care Advice Past and Present by Christina Hardyment is an overview of the crazy, yet earnest, advice given to parents (usually mothers) over the last hundred and fifty years. Parents have been admonished on topics from hugging (bad) to breastfeeding (bad) to warm baths (bad), and some of the advice will leave you open-mouthed. Following the advice is almost always presented as vital to the fabric of society, and yet somehow, civilization has soldiered on despite the failings of mothers everywhere.

How Not To Be The Perfect Mother by Libby Purves is a memoir written by Purves while she was, as she puts it, at the "coalface of practical early motherhood". Funny and pragmatic, Purves offers advice and reassurance without judgement. "A good hungry dog mooching around the high chair helps."

My children are six and four, and I expect I have at least ten years of parenting books ahead of me, so I suppose this list will change, but I've been through two babyhoods and two toddlerhoods and am now firmly in the realm of parenting children. Books have been a terrific help and comfort to me through this journey, and I hope this list can help other parents find their path.

Things To Do: Be More Awesome

Back in November I talked about those women who do a million and one things—have a career, have a nice house, do charity work, volunteer at school—and how I'm going to be more like them. So far it's going pretty well—I helped with a fundraiser at school, I'm chair of a somewhat underachieving Eco-committee (part of the problem being that whenever we think of something eco to do it turns out the school is already doing it), and so far my children haven't starved to death or sickened due to the filthy state of the house. One thing did falter: I missed a few notes in the Christmas concert because I wasn't at the dress rehearsal. Lesson learned.

But I digress. The reason I bring this up is that I realized that this ambition, to Do Lots of Things, is a subset of a bigger ambition which I have just put into words: Be More Awesome.

As I have discussed before, I see myself as a veritable well of unfulfilled potential. Sure, I have a rather lame math degree and two lovely children, but other people my age are running for city councillor and writing books and,well, being awesome. I want at least a little piece of that.

Let me digress again for a moment. The school is getting a second kindergarten playground, and the eco-committee wants it to be a natural playground, one of those jobbies with logs and rocks to play on instead of metal and plastic playstructures. Great idea, very eco. We (mostly I) came up with this idea ages ago, but I wasn't sure where to start, who to talk to, how to broach the subject. So I didn't do anything.

And then last week I busted up my back (You know why? Because in my last post I was all "I haven't hurt my back for over a year!" Stupid.) and I was stuck on the couch all week. Rather than be completely useless I did some research on natural playgrounds and then I emailed the principal. I was all, "The eco-committee is exploring the idea of a natural playground for the new kindergarten playground", and I went on to briefly describe a natural playground, and explain why we (I) thought it would be a good idea. I cc'd the vice-principal, our trustee, and the rest of the committee, and hit send.

Three minutes later the trustee replied saying he would be happy to attend a meeting about this proposal. Proposal! It was just an idea, a whim! But by writing it down and sending it to some people, it became a proposal. Thirty minutes later the principal responded with a five-paragraph email, cc'd to about a billion more people, saying that they had considered a natural playground, we should meet soon and what was my thinking? We're meeting on Tuesday.

That's it. That's all it took: an idea, some Googling and a judiciously cc'd email, and now we have a proposal and a meeting. Obviously I'm going to have to prepare for the meeting, and there will be other jobs coming down the pipeline, but all it took to get the ball rolling was one email message.

What I have learned from this is that the path to awesomeness is paved with tiny baby steps. This a truth neither profound nor abstruse, but it has been a long time coming to me. I don't like to act on things unless I know how they're going to turn out. And not just the first step, I like to know what's going to happen four or five steps down the line. I like to think things through and anticipate problems, and prepare for them. This is a wonderful trait if you're going camping, or taking two small people downtown, or going on vacation, but it has its limits. When I'm contemplating something complicated or new, or that involves other people, I can can always think of nine or ten ways stuff could go horribly wrong. Thus, paralysis. Inaction. Failure to be awesome.

A while ago I read a book called Feel the Fear... And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and as you can see from my discussion of it, a) this blog post is well overdue and b) I am a broken record. The good news is that I've taken the lessons I learned from the book on board—the ideas that were new to me back in 2008 are a comfortable part of my daily coping repertoire now. So, odd as it seems, these realizations, that I am scared to act if I don't know I will succeed, and that it only takes a small step to start getting things done, actually represent progress in my quest to be more awesome.

That's the End of 2009

I got a great email newsletter from David Allen (of Getting Things Done fame) about taking stock of the year's accomplishments and completions. He included a list of categories to focus on, which I am going to use to consider how 2009 was for me and what I'm going to change in 2010.

Physical

After a c-section in 2003, another in 2005 and gallbladder removal in 2007, 2009 was refreshingly free of major or minor surgery. I don't think I had a single episode of major back pain, either, so maybe I have finally figured out how to deal with that (mainly stretching, and strategic use of ab muscles). I did some running after school started in September, but a bout of H1N1 in November sapped my motivation and I haven't run since.

I recently went to the doctor for my irregularly scheduled annual checkup and everything checked up fine, but I have gained twenty pounds I wasn't entirely expecting. (I don't weigh myself at home so the pounds have lots of time to creep on between doctor visits.) I will be addressing that situation in the new year, along with everyone else in North America. I've been very self-indulgent with my eating habits lately—I need to be more sensible about that, and I'm going to switch from running to walking in the hopes that I can slip it into my daily routine easier. I also think that doing yoga regularly would cure most of my mechanical problems.

Emotional

I have to admit this has been a difficult year for me, emotionally. I have been pretty unhappy about a couple of things—doing all the housework myself, for example—and have felt almost entirely alone with that unhappiness. Blake and I are rubbish at confrontation so I tend to never try and resolve problems with him. And they fester. As if that's not bad enough, I don't have an extra-marital emotional support system to listen and offer support and suggestions. I used to have my brother, then I had Sascha and my BF-as-it-turns-out-not-F Janet. My brother and Sascha got lives and Janet dumped me, and then Delphine was born, and I guess I haven't had any real emo needs since then, until this year. This year has been very emo but I've mainly dealt with it on my own, mostly in the basement while folding laundry. That sucks. Kat is a good ear, but I can't drop everything and cry on the phone to her whenever I'm unhappy. The laundry needs folding and she has a job.

Obviously in 2010 I have to do that a little better. What do I do? Make a new friend? One without a job or any children? Get a therapist? Start a private journal? Go to a marriage counsellor? I will have to figure something out.

Mental

Mentally I think I have held my ground this year. As I mentioned in my book blog, this year hasn't been terrifically intellectually rigorous, but I read a few thinky books and I've been keeping up with my Walruses and New Scientists. I'm happy and excited with my decision to pursue writing as a career. I love to read and think and write, and if I can possibly make some kind of money at it that would be awesome.

Next year, obviously, I have to kick the writing into a higher gear. It's very hard to get anything done in the two hours that Cordelia is at school, so I have to figure out how to focus my efforts in that time (less twitting and housework, more actual writing). I have both girls on a list for daycare starting in September, but of course paying for daycare demands that I earn an income. This is more terrifying to me than perhaps it should be.

Spiritual

I think I'm in the same place spiritually that I was a year ago. I don't think about it much. I don't believe in the supernatural but I derive a feeling of wonder from the immensity of the universe, from the magical unlikeliness of our existence, from my children. I try to be good. In 2010, more of the same.

Financial

We paid off our line of credit! Of course, Blake was on contract and he didn't pay taxes all year, so come April we may be in debt again, but for now we are debt-free. Hopefully a year from now we will be debt-free for sure.

Family

My family is awesome. The girls are going through an utterly charming patch, and I'm happy with our parenting. I haven't yelled in ages! Next year, I hope that will continue. Five and seven are both supposed to be pretty charming ages, so that looks good.

Further afield, I would like to be closer to my brother. He just moved in with a girl who I know next to nothing about, and I have no idea what's going on with him generally. I should also call my mother more often. So should you, probably.

Community Service

Before this year I wouldn't have had a lot to say in this category, but this year I did a ton of work for my kids' school, and did it ever open my eyes to the amount of free labour the school boards of Canada get from parents. I worked in the library, volunteered in the classroom, helped run a craft room for a fundraiser, went on a field trip, was class parent for Delphine's class, and signed up to head the Eco-committee.

This year I hope to actually do something as head of the Eco-committee, and I'm going to try and pursuade our School Council to donate some money to a school without so many deep-pocketed parents. I suppose I'll be roped into running the craft room again next Christmas, too.

Fun / creativity / recreation

You know, I've been thinking about fun lately, specifically in the context of play. The children play most of the time and work hardly at all—Delphine works a little bit at school, and she has a couple of jobs at home, but most of her time is free time. Cordelia is four—she plays at school and she plays at home, and her only job is feeding the cat.

But when do I play? On the one hand I'm in the very lucky position of rarely having to do something which I'm not intrinsically motivated to do. I look after the children because I love them, I take care of the house because I want my house to be taken care of. I read and write because I love to do so, I have fun volunteering for the school. There is almost nothing I do that's pure drudgery. And a lot of what I do is pure fun: most of my reading, choir, my friendships, and watching TV are all things I do for myself.

In 2010 I would like to read more, and keep singing and seeing my friends. I'm even happy with the amount of TV I watch, or rather with the quality of TV I watch. I should try and use my time more mindfully, so I don't fritter it away. I have too much fun stuff to do to spend time doing things which are merely diverting.

That's that. It's 12:21 am on January 1. I hope everyone has a wonderful year in 2010!

(By the way, you can subscribe to David Allen's Productive Living newsletter here. I've only received one, so I don't know how good they generally are, but since I used the latest one to inspire this post I figure I should at least point you to the source. I do use the Getting Things Done system and find it very effective and comprehensive.)

Books Read in 2009: Year In Review

Another year, another giant stack of books. Here's how it all boiled down in ought-nine.

  • Total books read: 66
  • Adult Novels: 16, of which six mysteries, and six for the book club.
  • Young Adult Novels: 4, two of which by Kit Pearson
  • Non-Fiction: 42, of which:
    • 9 books about writing;
    • 6 books about parenting;
    • 16 how-to and self-help (or psychology) books;
    • leaving 11 others.
  • Memoir: 5, three by Bill Bryson
  • CanCon: 12

I felt like I wasn't reading much this year, and I was right. Further, it wasn't my most profoundly intellectual of reading years. I only read four adult non-mystery novels of my own accord (the rest were for the book club). I read a bunch of non-fiction books, but plenty of them were "how to decorate" or "how to garden"-type books.

Interesting that I read three more books about writing than I did about parenting. I guess I'm getting pretty confident about the latter, but still petrified to take the plunge into the former.

Here are some standout books, in no particular order:

  • Pictures of Perfection by Reginald Hill is a beautifully written mystery.
  • A Handful of Time and A Perfect, Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson both made me cry, as did
  • Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy and Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn pushed me to raise my parenting game
  • Dead Men Do Tell Tales by William R. Maples and Michael Browning was surprisingly profound and yet also provided me with lots of gross anecdotes for cocktail parties.
  • I called Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzales as one the best of the year back in January when I read it, and I was right. It's astonishing in its depth and breadth, and the way Gonzales brings it all together is breathtaking. In fact, I can hardly believe it was so good—I'm going to have to read it again and see.
  • And a special mention to Getting Started As A Freelance Writer by Robert Bly for planting the seed of the idea that I might be able to earn a living at this thing I do for fun.

Next year I'm going to try and clear out at least half of the two feet of my to-be-read shelf before the end of May. I'm going to try and read more novels, and I'm going to strive, as always, to be a more attentive and thoughtful reader.

This Is the Last of Them: Books in December

A while ago I read The Ten Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer, for book club, but I forgot to write it down and therefore didn't blog about it at the time. It's about a handful of New York mothers who variously work, don't work, volunteer, don't volunteer, bake, don't bake, have great marriages or disappointing ones. It's about the choices women make about work and life, and about how you sometimes find you've made life-changing choices without really knowing it at the time.

Unfortunately nothing happens in the first 92 pages of this book. There are chapters and chapters and chapters of character development and backstory until you wish you could step into the book with a handgun just to make something happen. Finally something happens, there's a couple of chapters of action, and the book ends. It's all a bit boring and I probably wouldn't have finished it, if it weren't for the book club. Ironically I didn't end up going to the book club meeting, but I bet it was a good one. We always have more fun talking about books we didn't like, and despite the slowness of the story, this book provided plenty of discussion fodder for a group of urban mothers.

Heat Wave is a book "by" Richard Castle, the fictional protagonist of the TV series Castle. He's a well-connected mystery writer, played by Nathan Fillion, who shadows a sexy New York cop (Stana Katic) for research. The book is about a magazine writer who shadows a sexy New York cop for research. It was very disconcerting to read a book written by a fictional character, about a second-order fictional character who was clearly based on the first-order fictional character (who in turn is played by an actor who I follow on Twitter, providing yet another layer of reality/unreality confoundment). But besides that it was a clever and funny mystery very much in keeping with the TV show.

Another torturous read courtesy of the book club (it's been a bad year): Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn is a history of Santa Claus written as an autobiography, from the character's origins as a child named Nicolas who would be a bishop and later a saint, all the way to the portly elf we know today. Along the way Guinn explains how Santa manages to make all the toys and get all the way around the world so fast. He might explain some other stuff, but I stopped reading around the time Santa Claus convinced Queen Isabella to sponsor Christopher Columbus's search for a better route to India. The book is full of such Forrest Gumpian connections. The funny thing is, all the people that old St Nick befriends, including King Arthur, and Attila the Hun, share the same early-21st century belief system as Santa (and, I imagine, most of the readers of this book).

I love Christmas and I love Santa Claus—well, I don't mind him—but this book is simple-minded glurge. I would enjoy a real history of Santa Claus: how his story has changed throughout history, and what the changes mean in the context of their time. This is not that book.