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.
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?
A recurring issue that’s been troubling me, lately: my children have begun asking why there are no women who … fill in the blank. Why are there no women who play hockey (in the NHL, in the playoffs, which are on every evening at our house). Why are there no women who coach kids’ soccer (thankfully, we found some women coaches to counteract that observation; but it’s still mostly true. It’s mostly dads out there on the field). I’m trying to think of another example of “no women who …” but can’t offhand. Anyway, it’s a good question. It reminds me that we aren’t, exactly, who we claim to be, as a society. Our relentless message is that girls can do anything, be anything, choose anything; and while it’s essentially true, there’s no counter-conversation about why so many girls/women don’t, and what, if anything, we should do about it.
If girls (and boys) can do anything, why, for example, are little girls supposed to wear pink and like fairies and princesses, and little boys supposed to wear dull colours and make truck noises and wrestle? Why are these gender differences so strongly endorsed, to the point of making little boys who once liked flowers and pink refuse to wear them lest they get teased for being different, and little girls, who once could care less what they wore, feel they must pay attention lest they get shunned for being different?
And, yet, there are some very real differences. For example, as AppleApple has observed, most women are not as physically strong as most men.
(In our family, we have one boy who makes very loud weaponry sound effects and who never took interest in any doll ever given to him; one girl who chooses her brother’s hand-me-downs over her own girlie options, most days, and who doesn’t like “princessy games”; one girl who would wear ruffled pink in perpetuity and who likes looking at pictures of fairies; and one boy whose favourite colour is pink, who pushes a stroller and gently tucks his doll in, and who likes to growl and pretend to be a crocodile attacking his older siblings. How much have they chosen for themselves, and how much has been chosen for them?).
Yes, a girl can grow up to be anything she wants to be. It shocks my children to imagine that this were ever otherwise; yet for most of human history, a girl could not grow up to be anything she wanted to be. Now, she really can. I do believe that. But just because she can, doesn’t mean she will. And the evidence does not match up with the story the kids are being told. They see it. It makes them wonder. Why are there so few women in any snapshot of world leaders? I am excited for this summer’s World Cup, but also realize, looking through my daughters’ eyes: there will be no women playing. And there is nothing comparable to point them toward. Thank heavens, they were able to see themselves reflected in our Olympians.
I haven’t done anything to change the balance, either. I had a good job before I started having children. Then I stayed home with them. That was nine years ago. I have benefitted from the unquestionable luxury of being a women who chooses to stay home with her children, supported financially by a willing and able husband. I don’t feel regret or guilt about my decision, and we’ve always looked at ourselves as a partnership, and continue to work toward an ideal balance of childcare and work, and domestic duties and pursuit of outside interests; but out of strict financial necessity, his work trumps mine. It has to. Would I have it any other way? Well, this is what I wanted to do. I got to choose, and I’m glad for it. It was a privilege to take this path. Many people would like to, and cannot, for a variety of reasons.
But, man, sometimes I would just like to go off to work in the morning, and leave someone else in charge. Someone else to do the daily laundry. Think up and prepare the daily meals. Schedule the appointments, contain the domestic minutiae.
Someone else could walk to school with an eager four-year-old and a fractious and contrary two-year-old who insists, simultaneously, on not riding in the stroller and not walking beside it. So we’re standing halfway up the hill, on a busy street, engaging in a mental tug-of-war … “Come on, honey. Keep walking. Or I’ll have to strap you into the stroller. Come on, sweetheart. We’re going to be late. We’re already late. This is driving me crazy. The kids will be waiting. I don’t want to have to strap you in. You need to walk, or else I’ll have to …” And on and on and on, inching, lurching forward, sometimes at full tilt, then coming again to a standstill, till finally the inevitable happens and we are so late that he must be strapped in (screaming hysterically) and I am running–and still arrive late. “Why were you late?” “I’m sorry. Do you remember that we have swimming after school today?” “I won’t go. I hate swimming.” “We have to go.” “But I won’t. I just won’t. I hate everything.” “Would you like a banana muffin? We baked them this morning.” [Translation: two-year-old howled for more chocolate chips while four-year-old and her friend mixed and poured batter all over the counter this morning]. Eldest daughter emerges, at last, very late. She’s holding a gigantic car constructed of recyclables: of all the days to bring home this project. “I don’t think you can carry that all the way to swimming, do you? Can you store it on your desk and bring it home tomorrow? Do you want a muffin?” She chooses to carry it. We’re late. We walk fast. She falls far behind. “I’m still not going swimming,” says the eight-year-old. “Okay, if you really don’t want to, you can wait for us in the stands, but unfortunately, I do have to go in with your little brother.” Silence. “Another muffin?” “I guess I’ll have to go then.” Two-year-old attempting stroller escape, thwarted by intrepid four-year-old, balancing precariously, with arms and legs akimbo to block all exit routes. More howls. More, “Maybe you could put that car in your backpack and rebuild it later?” More, “I hate this. This is stupid.” Finally, our destination. Eldest daughter races off to the bathrooms. We wait. We’re late. She’s back. We enter a changeroom. We’ve forgotten a hair elastic. Eldest daughter races to stroller to find one. We wait. Still late. She’s back. Two-year-old now naked. “Do you have to pee?” Yup, and he’s considering the floor. “Please, please, please don’t pee on me,” someone else could mutter while racing for the bathroom clutching naked two-year-old. On the way, observe the mother with two older children who has driven here instead of walking, talking quietly to her offspring, guiding them toward the pool with preternatural calm. Return with successfully toileted two-year-old to changeroom where own offspring are fighting over who should sit where. “I might have to start cursing,” someone else could say. “What does that mean?” “Nothing. I’ll tell you later. When we aren’t stuck in a public changeroom with holes at the top of the walls, and the judgement of strangers to guide us otherwise.” We emerge, eventually, store items in locker, trip over one another, why is everyone always standing exactly blocking the direct route to anything? Finally. Pool.
This is only half of the tale.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice to have someone else do that instead? Wouldn’t it? Or, maybe not. It is good material, after all.
It’s what I do.
And this afternoon, someone else (our babysitter) is walking to school on my behalf … in the rain, no less. I almost want to stop her before she heads out the door and say, go on home, I’ll do it, don’t worry. It’s my job.
Our family meeting was so good, yesterday, that I was buzzing for hours afterward. It wasn’t that we’d solved problems or perfected the use of the talking stick (NO TALKING STICKS! was my decree). It was that we talked. There was conversation. Back and forth. Ideas flowing.
It all started earlier in the day, when I picked the kids up from school for swim lessons. If we walk fast, we can just get to the pool in time. I had fresh-made banana muffins to offer to grumpy eight-year-olds, pining for play dates.
“This is the worst day ever! I hardly have any time to play with my friends!”
Mondays and Wednesdays (and Fridays, sometimes, too) are days we currently keep free for after school play dates. Tuesdays are music days. Thursdays are swimming. And those days are also family time.
“But it’s not like we’re really together, is it? It’s not like real family time.”
No, not during the actual in-the-pool swim time. But let me assure you, we’re really together the rest of the time, and it really is family time. Walking to the pool and then home afterward underlined the togetherness of the venture. There we were, walking and talking, talking and walking. It’s an elemental combination. One of my closest and longest friendships has revolved around walking and talking. We walk, we talk. The forward motion can contain silences, time for reflection, emotion, quiet, bursts of energy and laughter and ideas.
There is no time of silence when walking with four children; but what interesting subjects have occasion to emerge. On the way home, AppleApple put on the winter hat I’d brought (one for everyone, though most declined). We passed a young woman on the sidewalk. Whether or not she noticed AppleApple’s winter hat/spring t-shirt combo, I cannot say, but AppleApple certainly noticed the young woman, and kind of cringed and hunched. And then she said to me: “I feel sort of embarrassed, Mom.” She was puzzled by the emotion. It was almost as if it were new to her, and she was newly discovering and feeling something unexpected and uncomfortable. She was embarrassed to be seen wearing a winter hat on a spring evening.
What an amazing opportunity to open a conversation about our emotions–embarrassment in particular–and how they can shape (or not!) what we choose to do. “Do you feel chilly without your hat? Would you like to keep wearing it?” Yes. “So keep wearing it.” I hope I didn’t head down Lecture Lane, but I was thrilled to be talking with my kids, in the most organic way possible, about peer pressure, being different, feeling different, and the multitude of embarrassing moments in their futures that could alter their behavior, or that they could recognize and resist. One of the most wonderful things about growing up is realizing that embarrassment is so often a projection of one’s own fears and anxieties–“what if she thinks I look stupid in my hat?”–and having the confidence and self-assurance not to change, if we’re happy doing what we’re doing. Most of the time, other people are thinking nothing of the sort (except, maybe, other teenagers; I’m not sure; I remember that being a pretty judgmental phase in my life). Most of the time, other people don’t really notice, or don’t notice to the degree that one imagines. All of this self-consciousness is heightened during the teen years–years of self-discovery, when it is both necessary and painful to examine oneself in depth and superficially, to scrutinize and question and experiment, to learn Who Am I?
We didn’t get into that. I told some funny stories from my childhood about feeling embarrassed. I warned them that embarrassment would be a sensation all the more acute and frequent in the years to come, and asked them to tell me if I were ever embarrassing them (they couldn’t imagine it! Ha!), and promised that I would never deliberately try to embarrass them … but that it might happen anyway.
And, then, this came out. Albus said: “Sometimes I feel embarrassed when the other kids in my class talk about Wii and they don’t talk to me about it, because they know I don’t have one.” He had a new friend over on Wednesday (play date day), and his new friend asked whether he had a Wii, and Albus had to say no. “Did you have fun playing together?” Yes. “Do you think he’d like to come back and play again sometime soon?” Yes. “Do you think he liked you less because you didn’t have a Wii?” No.
At our family meeting, we revisited the topic: being different, having a Wii or choosing not to. Fooey said she’d rather not have one, because then they might always want to play it (the child knows her cravings, too–she LOVES tv, and knows how hard it is to turn it off). AppleApple said we could always play at C&K’s house (uncle and aunt-to-be). Albus pointed out that if we did get one, we could stick to rules about how often the Wii would be played. Both Kevin and I were of two minds. I do think our family would be able to set limitations and stick to them. But the larger and more important point, to me, tends in a different direction altogether: why not be different? Why not be the house on the block where friends come over and play outside? (Plus, in our tightly-knit ‘hood, we’re not the only house on the block with no Wii; it’s just that this year, Albus has been separated from his best buds at school, and has had to adapt to the wider population of kids).
Coincidentally, I’d just read a report yesterday that the AVERAGE DAILY screen time for Canadian kids is SIX HOURS. And on weekends, that goes up to SEVEN HOURS. (That includes computer, tv, gaming systems).
Why not take a small stand against that, as a family, and just go without? It felt, by the end of our conversation, that everyone was willing to think about the larger implications of the choice. Childhood is so short. There is only so much time to play, and to play creatively. When I think of those kids digging that massive hole in our backyard, and the immensity of fun that was had, the enthusiasm, the dreaming and planning, the dirt, the physical labour, the cooperation … I think, yes! More of that, please! My own childhood was blessed with outdoor play, mess-making, freedom, imaginary play, and a connection to the natural world that was so natural I took it for granted.
Different. It’s okay. It’s better than okay. To be unique is to be a human being. To be confidently, happily, creatively, serenely, humorously, vividly, acceptingly and compassionately unique is to be a content human being.
Maybe you’ll eat ice cream with chopsticks (as per AppleApple, above, at last night’s family meeting; yesterday, they learned about China, and the three children in her class who came from China taught everyone how to eat with chopsticks).
I woke up feeling unpleasant. So did Fooey. She felt even more unpleasant than I did. I won’t get graphic on you, but let’s just say it was messy. And she was feeling so unpleasant that she just leaned over the side of her bed. CJ almost suffered a moment of sympathetic upheaval himself, but AppleApple was able to coax him away from the scene of carnage. I seem to be on the tolerable side of unpleasant as long as I don’t eat. I can stand and cope and do laundry (very important, under the circumstances, especially since Kevin is working in Toronto for the day.)
Photo number one depicts the three eldest children (yes, Fooey, too!) embarking on the walk to school, yesterday, without adult supervision. Well, to the walking school bus, which is only a couple of blocks uphill. At the family meeting, we’d decided that for the purposes of crossing the street, she would walk in the middle and each of the older kids would hold one of her hands. The after-school report was pretty good, though they had difficulty crossing “the hard street,” the one with the four-way stop and cars hurrying to commute to work. Apparently there were conflicting instructions from the drivers at the four-way stop. One woman waved them on, and another “old woman” waved to them not to cross, because she wanted to go. She went. The kids wisely waited. I was proud of how they handled it, making the best decision for themselves.
Photo number two depicts us this morning. Yes, I’m strangling Albus. Mostly in jest. He is a natural ham in photos and strives to hog the limelight. A gentle restraint was in order. I love the chaos. I love my family. We had ourselves a bit of fun.
The two oldest are quietly playing Lego together, after taking charge of lunch. With a bit of nauseated-Mama assistance, and some decent teamwork, they made tuna melts in the toaster oven. AppleApple sliced the bread and cheese, Albus worked the broiler. A friend has offered to bring supper, and I won’t turn her down. Even AppleApple, who had experienced a mild frisson over being in charge of the food prep today, thought it was a happy development: “Or we would probably be eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches for supper.”
If all goes as planned, the two eldest will be heading out soon with hockey sticks for a game of street hockey around the corner. I’m glad this gorgeous spring-like weather won’t go unappreciated.
Getting to see the world through his eyes. Naming it. “Catty!” “Rock.” “Big tree!” “Birdie?” “House.” “Hand, hand.” Watching a small purple pinwheel, planted in someone’s front yard, spin in the wind. Standing still. Waiting. Being licked on the hand by a dog. Following a cat. “Flower. Leaf. See.” Taking an hour to walk around the block.
There’s no life like this.