“Mom, do you know how to do small talk?”
“How do you do it?”
“Look for something you have in common. Like the weather.”
I had several occasions to practice my small talking skills this weekend. Soccer tryouts, both mornings, early. A reading yesterday. I sat in the car for part of both tryouts, the weather being inauspicious both days: pissing rain yesterday, a chilly breeze today under an ominous sky (see photo above; see in photo swirling cloud; see in swirling cloud whatever your imagination would like to invent). So I sipped my coffee and scribbled in my journal for awhile.
Coffee gone, done with deep thoughts, I wandered out to watch the girls on the field, and to chat with other parents. I used to dread the casual interaction. I was painfully shy, my mind a blank against which I would scrabble for useful tidbits of talk. It’s curious to recognize that this is no longer the case. I can’t pinpoint when it changed. I suppose I’m still a quiet-ish person, not all that fundamentally different. Except I like small talk. I like meeting people, making those mini-connections, even if we’re just talking about the weather.
I suspect I used to think the exercise was a waste of time, a bit. We all know it’s raining, right? I didn’t really get its purpose. I was tone-deaf. Closed to the possibilities. But I’ve come to suspect that small talk isn’t so small, that it’s the stuff that keeps us civil, and more than that, too. Convention forces us to express interest, to look just a little outside of the self, and consider another person, a stranger, and by doing so to become just that much less strange to each other. Somewhere along the line, I got a taste for exactly this kind of interaction, and I’m never going back. I will know odd facts about the woman who is bagging my groceries, because I’ve asked, and I’m happy to know. (She’s doing a PhD in biochemistry!)
“I just can’t think of anything to say.”
I know! I totally relate to that panicky feeling, and remember it well. It hit particularly hard in high school.
Just ask questions, is what I suggested, assuming she would be talking to another kid, who might think it was kind of weird to be discussing the weather (I’m not 100 percent certain to whom she’s planning on directing this hypothetical small talk).
One more piece of (happily) not unsolicited advice: Remember, no one can hear what you’re thinking. You do have to say it out loud.
Yesterday evening I remembered that someone from The Cord (the WLU newspaper) had emailed with a few questions a couple of weeks ago. I kind of forgot about it, what with everything I’m forgetting about these days, but when I was answering some other interview questions last night for a CBC site on blogging, it must have twigged my memory. Hey, I thought, I wonder what that other interview was about. A quick search, and I found the paper’s “Best of Waterloo Region” poll, clicked on “Best Local Author,” and there was my own half-smiling face. What the? I had to call my kids in to check it out. The ones who were still awake and should have been in bed. I’d been helping with homework, which has been a nagging theme for these past couple of evenings.
“Mom, could you just proofread this for me?”
I like to help, but less so at 9:30 at night, and even less so when a project is not truly at the proofreading stage, but rather at the “I’ve made up a few facts that I think sound cool” stage. I am currently conducting late-night mini-tutorials on proper research and use of a bibliography, in between lectures on capitalization, the differences between there, their, and they’re, and have you ever heard of a comma? I’m a really patient teacher.
No, I’m really not.
Here’s what I wanted to show you. I’ve got essays in two new anthologies out this fall, plus in the summer issue of The New Quarterly. I’ll be reading from The New Quarterly piece on Saturday at Word on the Street. Find me at the Walper, 4pm. The Waterloo launch for How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting is on Oct. 3 at the Clay and Glass Gallery, 7:30pm (get in touch if you’d like to attend that one, please!). If I had the energy or wherewithal, I’d also organize a local launch for Have Milk, Will Travel, an anthology of comic stories about breastfeeding, but right now I’m overwhelmed by the every day stuff. Like vacuuming the bedroom, cleaning paint off a dog, supervising piano practice, and picking up my swim girl who is home now and eating supper, which I left on the table for her and therefore still needs to be cleared when she’s done. (Supper = fish tacos! Fish tacos = zero complaints!) I’m just pleased to be squeezing in a little necessary, happy-making blogging and book-styling before bedtime.
You all really liked that other colour of green, didn’t you? It’s okay, you can tell me. I can take it. I really like it, too. But it didn’t fit with my vision for the room! To use a metaphor, as I’m wont to do, it’s like editing one’s own writing: kill your darlings, is how Stephen King puts it. The point being, just because you love something doesn’t mean it fits. Sometimes you have to paint over a colour you really love, or remove a plot point that charms you, or exise your favourite sentences (actually, in writing, that is almost the rule rather than the exception. Your favourite sentences will inevitably be the ones you have to sacrifice in honour of the whole.)
Stick with your vision. This will make you happier in the end.
Yesterday, the Giller longlist was announced. I didn’t hear about it until rather late in the day, which put in perspective the difference between this year and last. Last year, I was on tenterhooks the morning of the announcement, which kicks off prize-season here in CanLitLand. And then I wasn’t on the list. It felt crushing, but I coped, and pretty soon I felt better. But it was kind of a relief, this year, not to have that pressure of waiting and wondering and then coping and forging onward. A year from now, I’ll be going through this all over again. I can’t even ask the question: should literary prizes matter so much? One hopes a deserving book finds its readers no matter what, but the prizes do help focus attention, especially on books that might go otherwise overlooked.
I want to congratulate everyone on the list — and also hug everyone not on the list, especially those who it seemed might find their way there. One small observation: there are 13 writers on the list, and 4 are women. I wonder about that. And then I observe that the jury is made up of two Canadian women (Esi Edugyan and Margaret Atwood) and one American man (Jonathan Lethem). So, who knows. I realize that’s not a profound conclusion, but I haven’t got one.
One more thing: looking over this list of authors, I notice how many are of my own generation, or just a little older than me. Makes me realize that “the establishment” is fluid. The list also reinforces my sense that CanLitLand is about the size of a neighbourhood, and that I’ve found it a lovely place to dwell. Despite the pressure and anxiety around prize lists, I’m looking forward to having a new book out next fall, because it’s a reason to travel and meet other writers, and that’s my favourite part of living in CanLitLand.
I woke up without a headache this morning. I’ve been sitting at my desk for over an hour, and I still have no headache. This feels worth celebrating! Perhaps with a sunshiny walk: I saw the physio yesterday, and he said I could try a half hour walk once or twice a day. He also did acupuncture, and I swear it helped. As yesterday afternoon turned to evening, it felt like the fog was lifting.
I cut this lad’s hair yesterday outside in the backyard. I’m trying to remember when I became an “expert” haircutter, and I think it was as a teen, when I simply insisted that I knew what I was doing, and my mother let me experiment on my younger siblings, who suffered some occasionally unflattering cuts as a result. (Edna, please forgive me that bowl cut?) But some of the cuts actually turned out, cementing my “expert” status! (Or, more accurately, my delusions of expertise.) I remember giving my mother a brilliant haircut right before her high school reunion. In turn, this anecdote should give you a succinct understanding of who my mother is: a woman who would let her teenaged daughter give her a haircut right before her own high school reunion!!! She trusted it would work out, you see. That’s pretty awesome mothering, in my opinion.
Stripes! We should have done stripes just like these! This girl had her second gymnastics class yesterday evening. Flushed and happy afterward, she wondered whether she could take more than one class a week. “I might have found my special thing, Mom!” (She’s been terribly worried because her siblings all have their “special things” that they love to do, soccer, mainly, while she’s dabbled in, but never loved, quite a few activities including dance and tennis.)
I tried to ease her anxiety by explaining that we may discover many special things that interest us deeply at different times in our life, and that experimenting is a good thing, but I’m to blame for putting the anxiety in her head in the first place, by suggesting that we all have “special things.” I meant to encourage her to explore her interests, but instead I planted a seed of worry. Parenting. Try, fail, try again, fail better.
One of this girl’s “special things” started yesterday evening, and we were both really excited to get the season underway. Swim team! Last fall, she was a novice who couldn’t do a flip turn or a start dive, and now she seems like a veteran. Here’s a thought. A sign that something may be our “special thing” is that we return to it with excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment, even when it’s no longer new. Even when we already have a sense of what to expect from ourselves. Even when we’re acquainted with our limits, and know our own strengths and weaknesses. If, even then, we want to participate and keep learning and stretching and growing, then we’ve landed on something special.
So, the living-room. We were going to paint three walls a lighter shade of green, and one wall darker, but the darker tone turned out to be not drastically different from the lighter, as you can see (above).
Here’s how the conversation went after all four walls had been painted, yesterday afternoon:
Me: It’s a good colour, but it’s not what we planned.
Albus: I like it.
Me: I’m not sure.
Apple-Apple: You could paint the wall that colour I wanted [note: that colour she wanted was a violently brilliant eye-popping apple green].
Me and Kevin: No.
Albus: Well, it’s your house so you get to choose.
Me: But what do you think?
Fooey: I think you should do stripes!
AppleApple: I know! You could paint the ceiling that colour I wanted!
Me and Kevin: No!
Fooey: Like a stripe of purple and a stripe of blue and then green and yellow and …
Me: I mean, I like the colour, it’s just not what we planned.
Kevin: I have to know by noon tomorrow because I won’t have time to paint after that.
Fooey: Can you paint stripes in my room?
Me, [messaging Kevin, 10:07 AM, today]: I went and looked again and decided you should paint it.
Kevin: Ok I will come asap.
This is the bonus of having non-traditional jobs: so we can pop home and paint whenever the mood strikes! From the sounds of it, he’s got a soccer game going in there, too. Pretty nice way to spend a Monday afternoon.
[Note: if you really really love that shade of green over which Kevin is painting (above), please don’t tell us, because he’s covering it up right now, as I type, and we’re not going to repaint this room three times in as many days. But, who knows, we might use it for stripes in Fooey’s room. Why not?]
I like to note what’s working for our family at any given time, even though this is bound to change.
Piano practice: What’s working is to tailor a small reward system to each individual child. Albus earns screen time following piano practice. Fooey puts a sticker on her school calendar every time she practices, and earns small rewards (books or crafts) for every twenty practices. AppleApple likes to play the piano and doesn’t like keeping track of things, so she doesn’t want or need a reward.
I’ve put a dishwasher emptying schedule on the chalkboard. The three eldest take turns unloading, and put a check mark beside their name each time. This helps balance it out on days when one child can’t take his or her turn. No fighting over who has done it more often. CJ is too small to unload the dishwasher, so his job is to the water the plants every few days. He gets a checkmark too.
The laundry is an ongoing issue for me, for which I seem to have less and less patience. Since the bed bug situation began, I’ve been running everything through the drier as a precaution. A pattern has taken hold: the laundry gets washed, dried, then left for days sitting crumpled in baskets until I finally undertake the task of folding and distributing it. This does not make me happy. Last night, while I was at class, AppleApple and CJ spent an hour folding and distributing laundry: they made it into a game, apparently. This makes me very happy.
this is my office, with bonus points to anyone who can actually find it, or move that duct-tape-covered chair
Everyone was waiting up to hear about my first class last night.
this is my echoing classroom
I can report that the classroom is not an ideal workshopping space, and I’m hoping to get the class moved. I can also report that that my concussion symptoms did not feel worse after teaching for three hours, for which I am more than grateful, I am deeply relieved.
I woke this morning feeling better relative to every other day this week.
A friend sent me a link to Tabatha Southey’s reflection on her own experience with concussion
. Given that it’s Tabatha Southey, it’s very funny, and also comforting: I relate to the feeling of disassociation she describes, and her inclination to start crying just about whenever. I am not a crier, generally speaking, yet I’ve found myself slipping easily into tears. (Parking ticket? Tears! Children holding hands on the way to school? Tears! Someone “hates” the supper I’ve made? Tears!) It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, though that may be my disassociative self talking. Nothing seems like a bad thing, really, which makes life very liveable.
But I look forward to exiting this fog. I really do.
It worries me to think of my brain being bruised. It worries me to consider bruised the part of me that I rely on for judgement and self-critique and sensible advice and the ability to focus intensely. It’s given me a whole new perspective on injury and fitness, and also on the idea of pushing beyond one’s limits. I can push my muscles beyond what seem to be their limits, and I trust my body’s capacity for endurance, but it never occurred to me that I might have to extend the idea of physical limits to my brain. It doesn’t seem the same, to me, as a hip injury or an ankle sprain: I wouldn’t shy away from activities that might re-injure those body parts, but would I risk re-injuring my head? I don’t think so. My head is my livelihood.
A few more good things, before I sign off: my kids like to read the newspaper, comics and obituaries. I know it’s off-beat, but I gravitate toward the obituaries, too: all those stories, the attempted summing up of all those lives. Here is AppleApple, before leaving for school this morning: “Mom, you have to read today’s obituary about a nun who was 109 years old
!” That makes me happy, too.
And I’m oddly happy living with my dresser drawers emptied out and the majority of my clothing temporarily stored in giant plastic bags (a bed bug precaution). I have a tiny rotation of clothes available, all are clothes I like wearing, and the lack of choice every morning is a peaceable thing. I may never go back to full drawers again.
Finally, I’m very happy with the random tasks that got accomplished over the summer. The following messy places got thoroughly cleaned and organized: the fridge (!!), the art table and accompanying bins and shelves (why do we have so many art supplies?), the children’s rooms and their bookshelves, the bathroom cabinets, the swim stuff, the bins of gift bags in the attic (I know, you wouldn’t think that’s much, but it felt like an accomplishment), and my home office. My office, with its tidy new filing box, makes me especially happy.
Oh, and one more good thing! Here’s the link to the official announcement in Quill & Quire about Girl Runner.
I’m basically scooping my daughter’s homework deadline, but I just had to share her response to a school assignment to write a six-word memoir. After trying out a variety of ideas that played around with her connection between the imaginary and the real, she came up with the six words above, and had me take an accompanying photo. I love the dreamy, peaceful, joyous expression on her face. The saddle is from my own pony-owning era, with safety stirrups that I remember my Gramps, who loved horses too, insisted I use. We couldn’t find a bridle with reins in the attic, so she’s got a skipping rope instead. Hey, the imagination works wonders. Her little brother and sister have also been welcomed into this imaginary world and AppleApple happily responds to all requests to “go ride Nellie.”
(As an aside, do you think you could write a six-word memoir? Could I? Maybe I will ask my students to try this exercise when we meet for the first time tomorrow.)
This is turning into Carrie’s bad news bed bug and concussion blog, but I figured you might like an update on my head. I saw a sports medicine doctor today. If you’ve got a few minutes, take time to watch this surprisingly helpful and succinct video on concussions made by a doctor in Montreal. Unfortunately, I’m not even at step one of the steps to recovery: I’m still suffering symptoms even while at rest. But overall, I was relieved to know that I haven’t done anything too terribly wrong, with the exception of going back on the field to play out the game in which I suffered the concussion. In retrospect, I realize I would never let one of my kids do that, but apparently my judgement wasn’t the best following a blow to the head; and it’s not a mistake I’ll make twice. Otherwise, I’ve been properly conservative in my attempts to return to activity. I’m going to see a physio tomorrow, who also specializes in post-concussion syndrome, and will report anything of interest. Meanwhile, I need to be cautious even about my cognitive activities (argh!), which obviously take precedence over any exercise-related activities. The doctor’s words that stick in my head are: “You will get out of shape. I know that’s frustrating.” I think my main goal for right now is to accept that, and be grateful for all that I can do in the weeks and months ahead.
For example, I recognize that I won’t be able to race the Run for the Toad this year. It’s not that I couldn’t do it, rather that I would pay a very heavy price to complete it. Running seems to be a major symptom trigger. At this point, if I feel well enough, the doctor suggested an easy walk, and possibly an easy swim. But if I’m honest about how I’m feeling, even an easy walk hurts rather than helps right now. So does looking at my computer screen. Which means I’m signing off for now.
Thanks for all who have reached out to me recently with thoughtfulness and care!