This morning, I bought two kitchen timers, the kind that you can set for an hour and that tick loudly to mark each passing second. I bought them after listening to the CBC radio program Spark on Wednesday afternoon. I was driving through the most miserable weather (freezing rain) to pick up a child for piano, so I missed the name of the expert and the context, but the point of the interview came across clearly, like a message I needed to hear: video games are entertainment. They are designed to suck players in, to make players want to keep playing. That is their sole purpose.
Adults get sucked in to their digital worlds too: email for some, Facebook or Twitter or other social media for others.
Lecturing a kid about self-discipline around video games is not only ineffectual, it’s completely pointless, said the expert. You can’t tell a kid to have more self-discipline, when in fact, the kid is responding to the stimulus exactly like a normal human being.
Which is why I’ve got two new kitchen timers. Here is what the expert recommended: set a time limit, and enforce it by setting a timer. An old-fashioned ticking timer that reminds the child that time is passing. When the timer goes, re-set it for another 1-2 minutes, to let the child extract him or herself from the game/digital device. When that time is up, if the child hasn’t disconnected, there will be a penalty, say, 5 minutes less playing time tomorrow. If the child has shut off the game, the expert recommended a reward. I didn’t hear what kind of reward. (I wouldn’t really want to offer more playing time tomorrow.)
There are larger issues, here, of course. You have to be present to know and actually see when your children are disappearing into their devices. What are they doing in their bedrooms while I’m cooking supper or sitting here in my office? What about at friends’ houses? Will my eldest choose to go to hang out a more permissive friend’s house, if he isn’t getting the screen-time he so craves at home? I worry about that.
But I worry more about being too permissive myself, and not consistent in how I apply my values to this situation. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. That’s the sound of my children growing up more quickly than I can really comprehend. Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick. My own timer is going. (In fact, I know the method works because I use it all day long, to keep myself on task, and free from distraction.)
P.S. Our washing machine is broken. OUR WASHING MACHINE IS BROKEN! And won’t be fixed till the middle of next week at least. AND WON’T BE FIXED TILL NEXT WEEK! I weep.
Where I’m at, in fifteen minutes or less.
Office, desk, laptop. Dog sleeping pressed up against my right foot. Peppermint tea at my elbow instead of coffee; liking it better this week than last.
Went for a short run this morning. Enjoyed the lightening sky and the birds. Stretched on the front steps.
Kundalini yoga during meditation.
I keep setting timers to keep myself on track. A timer for the run, timer for the yoga, timer for this post.
Writing, writing, writing. That is almost all I’m doing with my days.
In Girl Runner news, tonight I’ll be in Brampton at the library, reading and speaking. Check my events page for more info.
In soccer news: Tomorrow evening, I’ll be at a four-hour coaching course, which ironically means that I have to miss coaching the U16 Boys in a playoff games. On the weekend, I’m spending Saturday and Sunday in Hamilton to complete another coaching course. Last night, I completed an online course, mandatory for coaching certification. So, yes, it’s quite a commitment, let’s be frank. Every time I start feeling weary, I think, I’m doing this for my kid. And that gets me back on track.
In other Girl Runner news, that’s the Italian cover!
Time’s up. Happy Monday!
There are times when the world is too much with us, and a gut response is not sufficient, what’s needed is time and reflection and perspective. I’m not ignoring what’s happening in the larger world. I’m interested, I’m engaged, I’m paying attention, but I don’t have anything useful to say about it, here.
As of today, I’ve got two teenagers under this roof, and I think their growing independence and autonomy is stoking my growing impulse to step back into the shade of obscurity. I don’t know what the purpose of this blog is anymore, which is why I post here more and more rarely.
I still want to keep this space open, for when I do have something to say. But I don’t want to say something just because this space exists.
Today, I want to tell you about the wonderful books I’ve been reading.
I finished My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, and immediately dove into the second book in the four-book series, translated from the Italian. I’ve heard this series compared to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but to my mind, they are unrelated. Ferrante has a wider world view than Knausgaard, even if she is examining in detail a very particular time and place: she is depicting the assertion of power itself through the generations. It is the story of a friendship, and of two girls (now young women, in the second book), and it is told from the perspective of one of the women, but it is not about the rigidity of an individual point of view (which Knausgaard’s series seems to be explore), but about the flow of power and knowledge and ritual that shape an individual in ways that are beyond her control, even if she is aware of them. Ferrante observes patterns, large and small. The patterns of place. The patterns of family, of neighbourhood, of wealth and poverty, of knowledge, of culture. This is extremely rich and immersive writing, but it is also propulsive in its pacing. I won’t be reading another book until I’m finished the whole series, but at the same time, I don’t want it to end. It will be like saying goodbye to a friend.
I am thinking of My Struggle in relation to this book because I recently finished reading the third book in that series, Boyhood Island. I can’t read this series quickly. It’s like being trapped inside someone’s mind, someone who has a limited understanding of how he is being received in the world around him, and the effect is claustrophobic, and sometimes even alarming. But I remain interested. I will continue reading through this series, but at a much slower pace. I have no sense of urgency in my quest. It’s more of a commitment to see a thing through.
Another recommendation: Outline by Rachel Cusk. She is the British writer who was born in Canada and whose book was a finalist for two major Canadian prizes this season; there were complaints about how Cusk scarcely qualifies as a Canadian, and that may be true, but I’m glad she made the lists or I wouldn’t have discovered her. I devoured this book. I loved it unreservedly. It is highly stylized, enormously intelligent, and although told in the first person almost erases that person entirely, so that everyone around her leaps into the world fully fleshed, but she never becomes more than an outline on the page. It is the strangest feat, an accomplishment of great discipline. It made me question the purpose of the first person narrator, and the purpose of the writer, too.
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading out loud to the kids in the evenings: especially the two youngest (ages 7 and 10). So far we’ve read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume, and we’re nearly through From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg, both set in New York City, both stories about siblings.
All for now.
This is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.
Here is a portion of a conversation I had with Kevin the evening after my reading at the Sunshine Coast Festival. Let me set the scene: we were sitting outside on a deck at a glass-topped table covered with the remnants of a delicious supper we’d prepared for our family, of grilled and shredded chicken, refried black beans, tortillas, and a salad made entirely from vegetables grown in the garden of the house where we were staying: zucchini, lettuce, tomatoes in a ranch dressing.
The kids had gone inside, probably to watch the Food Network. We don’t have TV at home, and while we were at the house on the Sunshine Coast the kids became entranced and mildly obsessed with shows they found on the Food Network, which was all they watched. Their interest extended beyond the television, and they played and continue to play (especially the younger two) games based around preparing imaginary and elaborate dishes that include bizarre ingredients, and judging their relative success and merit. Just this morning, for example, while I sipped coffee and read the newspaper, I was offered fish and shrimp covered in caramel (um … ok?), and beans and rice topped with peach salsa.
That was a long aside.
Back to the glass-topped table, outside on the deck, at the house overlooking the Georgia Strait where we stayed while on the Sunshine Coast. I’d held the stage for an hour that morning, reading from Girl Runner and talking about my research for the book, and I’ll admit that I was feeling pretty high. It’s rare, at a festival, that you’ll be asked to hold the stage for a full hour (most often, authors are paired with other authors and a moderator, a format that works well when the chemistry is good, but tends to elevate one or two voices above the rest, if the chemistry is even a bit off). In all honesty, I was pretty nervous going into that solo hour, even though I’d prepared obsessively and practiced my presentation in advance. It is an honour to be given an hour of anyone’s time, let alone an hour’s worth of warm and generous attention from a sizeable audience. Trust me, in a writer’s life, this cannot be taken for granted. It’s a gift.
And that is essentially what I said to Kevin, while we stared out at the ocean and marvelled at being here, even if just for a few days: “It feels really good to get to do what you feel you are meant to be doing — it feels so good. So useful. To think of all those people giving me an hour of their time and attention. It is such a gift. This is a most lucky life.”
I think my strongest longing, as a human being, is to be useful. It’s why I so enjoyed parenting small children, and why I wanted to be a midwife. But children grow, and I’m not on the midwife path; instead, here I am, forty years old and still writing. And it doesn’t always feel useful. It often feels frivolous, self-indulgent, narcissistic. I try to apply my skills in wider ways, and to other causes. But it always comes back to this: I love writing fiction. I’m good at organizing ideas into a coherent shape. Out of everything I can do, this is what I can do best.
So I sat at the glass-topped table with my husband, and I savoured the moment, my heart and mind filled with what felt like inexpressible thanks. And now I’m trying to express it, because that is what writers do.
Yesterday, I drove my eldest to camp and dropped him off. The weather was sunny and hot. The car’s thermometer said it was 30 degrees outside. But as we came closer to our destination, a wall of grey cloud rose up on the horizon. Rain could be seen falling in sheets from a distance, lightning flashing occasionally. Albus took it in good humour—it always storms when he’s at camp. He had to go for cover during a severe tornado warning, several years ago.
We carried his gear to the dining hall along with everyone else who was arriving, and it soon started to thunder and lightning, and rain. After a brief introduction, the kids began gathering into their cabin groups, and the parents were sent on their way. I had brought an umbrella, and walked to the car in heavy rain, feeling chuffed with myself for being so prepared. But the air was cool, and I felt almost chilly in my t-shirt and knee-length leggings. When I started the car, I saw the thermometer now read 17 degrees.
I turned on the radio and found CBC as I left the camp grounds and headed east on the small country road, then south on the slightly larger country highway (Grey County 10) that cuts down to Clifford, through Hanover and Neustadt. But I didn’t get very far. Eleanor Wachtel was engaging three writers in a conversation on George Eliot’s Middlemarch, which kept my mind occupied, even as I watched the ominous shelf of heavy cloud to the west, which seemed to be blowing my way. I accelerated to pass several cars, because I had the impression that I could somehow outrace the storm. I was in a strip of clear sky overhead, no rain, no wind, as I drove down the strip of paved road between vast stretches of fields, punctuated by little clumps of thickly treed areas, a few houses, fences, barns, but mostly fields and trees.
I crossed Highway 21, which goes to Southampton, and Lake Huron. I remember glancing to my right, again, to assess the location of the cloud, still thinking I could outrace it, if only I could get past this slow-moving trailer-home in front of me. Only a few hundred feet out the passenger window, I glimpsed a stream in amongst trees, the whole of the scene stirred into a whirl, as if it were being thrashed by an invisible force. I can see it right now in my mind’s eye: a grey force, rattling the leaves and branches, bending the trees, stirring the water, within a rapidly descending fog. It’s that near to me, I thought. I’ve got less than a minute and it will be here. And then it struck the tiny car full-force, a powerful wind, heavy rain. My windshield wipers couldn’t keep up. I kept driving like an automaton, not sure what else to do, following the trailer-home. We crossed a small bridge that took us between a thick patch of trees planted close to the road, and I could see debris flying, and the car was struck with a branch, the treetops were whirling, and I knew, suddenly, that this was very dangerous weather. But what could I do?
I must stop somewhere with less trees, I thought. The trailer-home pulled into the gravel at the side of the road, and other cars coming from the opposite direction were doing the same, so I pulled over too, coming to stop in an area with a few trees far enough from the road that I didn’t think they could fall on me. I didn’t even notice the power lines overhead. On the radio, making it all the much worse, a siren began sounding, interrupting the voices of the women talking about George Eliot, and an automated voice informed me that the area in which I was driving was under a tornado watch or warning, and that I was being advised to take shelter immediately.
Take shelter? Where? I’m sitting with the car still in drive, my foot on the brake pedal, my body shaking uncontrollably, asking the automated voice where exactly would it advise me to take cover? My new car felt approximately as substantial as a tin can. At moments, the blasts of wind seemed to lift it almost off the ground. I imagined it spinning through the air like a blown piece of trash. I realized that there was no point in keeping the car in drive, and that my muscles must relax in order to stop shaking. I geared into park, and remembered that I had a cellphone.
I began texting Kevin. No response. Here is my series of (completely over-the-top hysterical) texts to him:
I’m in tornado.
Can’t find hazards
Should I leave car and get down in ditch?
How big is storm?please help if you can
The reason I considered abandoning the car and getting down in the ditch was because only a couple of days ago I heard a news report about a massive tornado in western Canada that ravaged an area for hours, and two teens, brothers, recounted how they abandoned the pickup they’d been driving and lay flat in a ditch waiting for the storm to pass—should I do the same? Is this what one does? It came to me that I possessed zero survival knowledge in this situation, and that my instinct was paralysis, essentially: to freeze and fearfully hope for the best. Hope that I wouldn’t be the unfortunate person who finds herself in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time.
But I could find the hazards! I dropped the phone on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment to find the manual. The car is new enough that I’d not yet had occasion to use the hazards, and couldn’t have found the symbol if my life depended on it—couldn’t even remember, in my state of mind, what the symbol for hazards looked like. In the index I found the page listing: “Page 176,” I said out loud, which curiously made me feel better, and I turned to the page, and read that the hazards are conveniently located near the radio controls.
Ah. That’s it. I pressed the button and felt more in control. I’d forced myself to behave in a calm and rational manner. The storm was not abating, however, so it occurred to me to phone home. My elder daughter answered, and I freaked her out while trying to sound calm, and then Kevin came on the line. He looked up the storm on the radar. Yes, I was right in the heart of it, but it was one long narrow path running north to south, and should be by me soon. He assured me that it was nowhere near camp, which eased my mind enormously. I kept thinking of how I’d left my kid in a camp dining-hall in what was maybe a tornado.
The trailer-home pulled out. I decided to pull out too.
I stopped once more when the wind got heavy again, parked in the shelter of a driving shed with another woman in her vehicle, both of us glancing at each other but what else could we do? Then I resumed driving again. The sky was alight with flickers of lightning, almost constant. I started to think I was imagining them. The storm didn’t seem to vanish, as promised. A utility pole that had snapped in half dangled over the highway on wires. It occurred to me, as I passed it, that I shouldn’t have parked underneath the electrical lines, earlier. I listened to a call-in show on the newly-called federal election, but I was hardly listening. I was in a dream-state, really. My focus on the road, my emotions pressed down deep. I chased the storm all the way home, kilometre after kilometre of tension and rain and wind—at one point tracking west to try to escape it, only to finish in Waterloo, on the homestretch, under a torrent of hail, and thick rain.
As I drove down Bridgeport, minutes from home, the sun came out and shone in my eyes—but it was raining heavily. The contrast was comical. Then it stopped suddenly, suddenly clear. The street ahead was blocked off by emergency vehicles, so I took a detour, and finally, I was in our driveway, home. On our front steps I leaned down and picked up a piece of hail that was quickly melting, as big as a quarter. I was jelly-limbed. Kevin fed me burritos. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t sit. When I lay down, I couldn’t rest. I felt both drained and wired all at once.
It wasn’t that I thought I was going to die—not really. But it did occur to me that this was a situation in which death would not be a completely unreasonable outcome. “Don’t let anyone publish anything I’ve been working on,” I instructed Kevin over the phone. “It’s not ready. It shouldn’t ever be published.”
“Um, okay,” he said.
I didn’t feel a need to give him last-minute instructions on child-rearing, because he knows what to do and what could I say in a ridiculously cliched phone conversation in the middle of a storm to make a worst-case scenario outcome better? But my publishing legacy—that seemed important to try to control.
Is it sad that I’m in the middle of projects that are incomplete, insufficient, unready? It isn’t that sad. I’ve published some good things, and it would be fine to leave it at that. It also isn’t sad because the potential of the incomplete and unready is good, when a person is around to fulfill it, and here I am, alive and well, sitting with earplugs in, listening to my daughter play and sing a song she’s composed on the ukulele—she’s even printed out the lyrics and chords—and I’m writing something, even if it’s only this. I’m here and I can keep working away at these ideas and projects and can hope, eventually, maybe, to finish something else I’ll be proud of, worth sharing.
When I walked through the door, safely home, I was drained of emotion. I’d spent the last two and a half hours trying to feel nothing at all—or instinctively feeling as little as possible, emotions useless in the situation, because they’d only overwhelm rational action and thought. I felt removed. The sensation was physical—that was why it felt so peculiar, so particular. It was like my eyes and ears couldn’t transmit deeper information to my brain, like there was a fog of rain between my brain and my body. My body was this blurred heavy weight that I was dragging like stone, but it was also me, I could recognize it as me. But this was a me that was blurred, heavy, indistinct. I couldn’t feel myself. And I didn’t care.
And now, let me be a little less melodramatic: passing through the storm was a minor trauma. Had I not been alone, it might not have seemed so dire, in truth.
After devouring the burritos and drinking several enormous glasses of water, I binge-watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine with AppleApple. Later, I played the ukulele in the dark, somehow recalling lyrics and chords to a vast number of Leonard Cohen songs, which made me feel 18 again—exactly 18 years old, when Leonard Cohen songs were my summer soundtrack and longing and love were fresh and his lyrics made perfect and perfectly romantic sense: “I loved you in the morning, your kisses deep and warm, your hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm. Many loved before us, I know that we are not new, in city and in forest, they smiled like me and you. But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie, your eyes are soft with sorrow, hey that’s no way to say goodbye.” (Except, I see now, in looking up the lyrics, that I’ve remembered them wrong, and the love or chains line comes in a later verse… but it is a good line, possibly the best in the song, so I’ll leave it as it is, and sing it like that, when I sing it again, in the dark.)