Category: Books

The Car

Pickle Me This has posted its picks for 2011: Canada Reads Independently, and this year I was asked to champion a book, not an easy thing to do as it turns out. How to choose? In the end, though I wanted to go with something newer or more obscure, I had to champion a writer who has been with me for many years (in my imagination, I mean), and who has deeply influenced my own writing–and whose work I return to perhaps even more often than L.M. Montgomery’s or Agatha Christie’s. (My taste is not highbrow). Interested in finding out more? Click here.

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In other news, I find myself obsessed with an accident that occurred in our neighbourhood, in which a twelve-year-old boy was struck by a vehicle while crossing the street (in the crosswalk). (He survived, but will have a long recovery). The boy was outside, on his own; not unlike I hope for my own children and other children of the neighbourhood to be able to be. And for all my primitive brain fears of losing a child to a stranger, my rational brain understands that the car is a much greater danger to them, outside, on their own.

My children have walked with me since they were very small, all over town; a fairly large proportion of our conversations, while walking, have related to how we are negotiating with traffic. Let’s just say I’ve had a lot of teachable moments while walking with my children. My conclusion is that our city is not a safe place to walk. Pedestrians can follow the rules of the road, but this will simply not guarantee their safety: they must use instinct and constant attention; a lot of ask to anyone, let alone of a child.

How many times have my children and I waited at a crosswalk, with the signal telling us that it is our right of way, while a driver, who wishes to turn right on a red light (her legal right, too), inches forward, head craning to look the other way: she will step on the gas and go if it’s all clear on her left and never look to see what’s before her: a child, a mom, a stroller, a cyclist. My kids have been taught to make eye contact with drivers before making the decision to cross the street. On their walks to school, they’ve waited for vehicles whose drivers are backing out of driveways without ever once checking behind for children walking on the sidewalk. An elderly woman waved to my daughter at a crosswalk, typically a sign that the car is waiting for the pedestrian to cross; fortunately, my daughter had only taken a step before the woman zoomed through the intersection. Apparently she was just saying Hello to the cute little child, as she hurried on her way. These are not isolated incidents; similar things happen every day. We might call them minor, but they are inches away from being major.

As pedestrians, of course we have to stay vigilant. But pedestrian vigilance is surely not the only or even the best answer to this problem, which seems to go much deeper, and speaks to the many sacrifices our culture has made on the altar of the car. Our cities are built not to move people, but to move cars.

The way we think about driving is mixed up, too. We consider driving to be a right; getting a driver’s licence is also a rite of passage. We forget that driving is actually a privilege and a responsibility.

To get inside a car is to enter a sealed bubble; it distances us from the world we’re driving through. How often am I hurrying to get somewhere, or late, or distracted by grumpy children behind me? Getting into the car does not make me a kinder, more aware, more empathetic person; it makes me quite the opposite. I become impatient. It’s the last place I want to be–in between, en route from somewhere to somewhere else, and not enjoying the journey. Inside the car is about the only place you’ll ever hear me swear (oh–though you might hear me swearing at cars when I am walking).

Yet I am very very appreciative of our vehicle. I use it primarily to ferry kids to activities that our family considers valuable: theatre school, music lessons, horseback riding. I’m not prepared, voluntarily, at this moment in time, to live entirely car-free. But I do want to try to live as car-free as possible. I want to remind myself, always, of the heavy responsibility that I bear as a driver: for lives both inside and outside of my vehicle. And I want to be able to walk safely in my city.

What are some next steps, as I consider how to bring about real changes? At the very least, a letter to the editor. But I also need to clarify my thoughts on the subject. Should I consider researching and writing about the car, about walkable cities, about how to get from where we are now to where we could be? How does change happen, especially change that feels enormous and structural? Any ideas?

Catch-me-up

Kevin is crafting the kids’ Halloween costumes. Praise be, ’cause crafty, I isn’t, and the man has talent. We now have an eerie likeness to the real Spongebob Squarepants grinning at us from our dining-room table. “Paint the rest of me!” he’s chirping. “Don’t forget my pants!”

On Thursday, it was just me and the two little ones home all day, and though we had several appointments to go to, we also had time to play “storytime.” I did not set the chairs up like this: it was Fooey’s doing.

This afternoon, the neighbours might have been forgiven for thinking our children were doing violence to each other in the backyard. The shrieks, the screams, the ongoing mayhem. And people are worried about the noise a few backyard chickens might make. Just try living next to us. You’d be begging for chickens. Let the photo evidence show that, in fact, fun was being had, if at ear-splitting volume. The three biggest were playing some sort of sandwich game on the motorcycle swing, while CJ hung around and gave me panic attacks every time he stepped too close.

Addendum

I think the last post, with its negative angle, may have unfairly represented my kids as constant complainers. Contrary to how it may occasionally feel (to their mother), they do not always complain. It’s just that when the complaining happens, I’m the one who (mostly) receives it. In fact, I’m pretty sure my kids fall into the normal category of sometimes energetic, sometimes bored, sometimes tired, sometimes grumpy, and mostly content.

When I asked Albus about his response to the mac & cheese meal, he was baffled: “I did really like it!” he insisted. He remembered being upset with his dad for not dishing out a fifth helping. So maybe I misinterpreted his “Bad!” comment. Maybe he considered the meal bad because it was so good that he was mad not be eating himself sick.

In any case, we had the loveliest after-school time yesterday. We were all so tired after a full week that when we walked through the door, we just crashed out together in the living-room. (AppleApple was at a friend’s house). Albus read a Lego book that had arrived from his Scholastic order (I’ve agreed to pay for one purchase of less than $10 each order, and if they want something more expensive they chip in the difference). Fooey hung out inside the coffee table (it has two lids that lift off, and we store a bunch of toys underneath; optionally, dump the toys out and it’s a cozy seating area … if one is less than four feet tall). And CJ crawled into my lap and lay on me quietly while I read a magazine. It was forty-five minutes of calm togetherness. I so rarely sit down and join in the vegging out. I think it recharged my batteries–not sure without it that I could have managed buying club pick-up (with the two youngest in tow), supper and clean-up on my own (Kevin took Albus soccer skills), and a post-kids’-bedtime beer with a friend to cap off the evening.

So here’s to vegetating (she says, in between cleaning out the basement shoe/boot collection, vacuuming the main floor, and dragging the kids to the library/grocery store).

Improvisation

Stepping into the green dream confessional. Ahem.

Working more makes me lazier on the ecologically sound homefront.

I am not taking time to hang laundry very often; instead, tossing everything into the “home sterilizer unit” aka the drier. (This decision is also based on several lice notices from children’s classrooms, and not wanting to risk an invasion; but when will I stop? I haven’t gone back to the clothes rack yet). I am also choosing to drive on occasions when I could walk. Yesterday, I drove to swim lessons, a walk of no more than fifteen minutes one way. But with the vehicle, I could toss the kids in the car last-minute, endure thirty minutes in the pool with CJ, shower, dry off, dress, and return home in exactly one hour. Which shaved time and stress off of my day’s beginning, and allowed me to invite friends over for a morning play. And then I drove to school yesterday afternoon because doing so allowed me to nap for an extra ten minutes (I’d already napped for ten when the buzzer alerted me to walk-to-school time). I hopped up, added another ten minutes to the timer, and fell back to sleep instantly. I can fall asleep in two shakes, and nap virtually anywhere, including my favourite spot: flat on my back on the the living-room floor. Wouldn’t want to get too comfortable.

(Side question: is my instant-sleep ability a talent, or a symptom of sleep-deprivation?).

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Have you read The Road? I ploughed through it almost against my will two nights ago, and it shook me to the core. I can’t recommend it–it terrified me utterly–but it is without a doubt a fabulously imagined creation. I won’t spoil the plot, promise; if you haven’t read the book and want to, you can safely read on. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, it seemed to ask me: could you live without hope? And I’m not sure that I could. Is all of my spirit-searching a meaningless enterprise? Would I have the inner resources to cope with extremity? Are inner resources something that can be built or honed, a skill-set like any other? Of course, the nightmare world imagined in the book is extreme, but as an extended metaphor could stand in for any difficult experience that any of us might face (and most of us will face something–how could we not? We are alive and human, and our world is unpredictable, our fates perhaps unwritten, and certainly unknown to us). Most particularly, the book explores a parent’s love for his child, which might be the spark that keeps him hoping and alive. But the love is explicitly terrifying, because he cannot protect his child absolutely. None of us can. But somehow I let myself believe that everything will be okay, that we will all be strong enough to get through anything we need to, that my children will experience love and joy and comfort. I am almost incapable of contemplating the reverse. That is why the book terrified me. It made me contemplate the reverse, and question my inner strength, my resources. There is no way of knowing how–what? who?–we will be until the moment is upon us, and we are required to respond. This applies to everything we do. I am fascinated by the improvisational nature of living. Yet I also want to keep working–not to memorize my lines, but to trust in my responses, to trust in some inner core of calm and strength.

Dial-Up Carrie

Why do I feel so slothful while on holiday? Is slothful even a word? My holiday brain cannot compute. Slowly, surely, holiday drains away my ambitions and intentions. I have to work to remind myself that rolling out of bed in the morning isn’t THAT hard.
Cottaging seems to strip me down to a more basic Carrie, a more primitive version of the 3.5 Carrie I currently enjoy. This is dial-up Carrie. This is Carrie attempting to cook delicious meals for nine on two wonky burners in three cottage pans (why do cottage kitchens supply such an eccentric selection of cookware and devices? and could we please ban the production and sale of all non-stick pots and pans? though I did read somewhere–in a study no doubt commissioned by non-stick purveyors–that Teflon is not absorbed by the human body, but passes right through; phew).
So, what are the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between 3.5 Carrie and the dial-up version? The dial-up version washes dishes, folds laundry, sweeps the crumbs and cleans the bathroom, and tries to get the kids to sleep at a reasonable hour. But the routine is off-kilter. This Carrie also drinks a shandy after lunch and sits in removed fashion reading a book (“Okay, Mommy, are you listening for real now?”).
Having worked so hard to develop 3.5 Carrie, I find it jarring, almost troubling, to revert to this more basic version; she has no interest in taking creative photographs (this will be a low spot in the 365 project); she has very little creative interest whatsoever; she slows to a crawl, scarcely able to force herself to keep up some reduced version of exercise. Maybe this is what a holiday is for? To vegetate and sink into words and thoughts, or float amidst them without thinking at all, to check out, to retreat.

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Of course, one must also observe that “holiday with kids” is not precisely the same as “holiday.” Last night we resorted to turning out every light in the cottage in order to impress upon CJ that we were indeed all going to sleep, RIGHT NOW. It was nearly 10pm. He was wired. He’s taken to saying, “I tell you a story,” and then launching into long detailed dramatic inventions about elephants and little lions and turtles who eat persons and wear pants. He had us spellbound after supper the other night (I’ll post video footage). But well after dark, being regaled by the tales of a two-year-old is not on the holiday agenda. No. On the holiday agenda is eating some freaking amazing cheese, a ripened sheep’s milk pebbled with blue purchased at Wendy’s Wigwam, reading a book, and drinking a beer. In adult company only.

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Two book recommendations: Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett, a memoir by a writer about her friendship with another writer, Lucy Grealy–if a relationship so intense can be pinned down by the word friendship. I’ve never been in a friendship like that. I am not sure whether I envy the author, or feel grateful to have been spared such a friendship. It’s also a fascinating portrait of writers in their developing pre-fame years (because, yes, both women became successful writers). Kevin’s reading the book now, or I’d look up some quotes. I particularly liked one from Lucy’s letters, in which she says that at least, as a writer, there is some measure of glamour to be gleaned from the drudgery and poverty of the occupation. I need to look into that.
The other book, which I’ve not yet finished, is a series of excellent short stories disguised by the publisher as a novel: The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. It’s set in a newspaper, so it has the additional appeal of taking me back to my brief fling with the industry; and it’s currently on bestseller lists. But I’ll bet it wouldn’t have made it there if the publisher hadn’t cleverly marketed it as a novel rather than as what it is: a collection of linked stories. If I feel a touch of bitterness over this necessity, yes, it’s personal. The book I am currently finishing is a collection of linked stories. Maybe my agent will find a publisher who will pretend it is a novel, and we’ll find success together. But I (selfishly) wish more people would embrace the short story (and in particular, linked stories) as a legitimate and complex and pleasurable form.
Now, for the glamour. I must pour myself a shandy or something.

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