Monday, February 28, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XIIX

Between Love And A Hard Place

First of all, I can't believe that our RRBB was ever that small. I'm being brave putting this picture online. It was taken during the heart of all the tragedy and trouble that surrounded his fairly easy birth. And now, 4 months later, he's giant -- 14 pounds and almost 2 feet long; he survived and flourished as my body recuperated from all the drama surrounding the disease, my pregnancy, and then our delivery.

I am so torn these days. As much as I want the time to pass -- so he's a little bit older, so he sleeps a bit better, so I get more sleep, just realizing that he's already doubled in size in 4 months makes me realize that people telling you time flies isn't just a platitude.

I have a rolling to-do list that never seems to get the most important items crossed off, and I can never seem to find the time in a day just to get caught up with blogging. And we're not even doing anything. It's the non-productivity that I find most daunting about being at home. The busy work. The mindless hours spent reading while baby sleeps on me because we still can't train him to sleep anywhere else during the day. I feel like Sisyphus and the rock -- only I'm way more tired than I ever imagined a god might be. There's a lot of existential thinking that goes on in the wee hours of the night. A lot of first sentences are being composed. A lot of sleeping happens by the men I am surrounded by, not so much by me. I know it's the meds and, in the past, these sleepless nights used to be filled with despair. An aching, longing kind of sadness that was punctuated by extreme self-hatred. I know, now, that was the meds too, a lovely thing called prednisone-induced psychosis, but rationalizing that it's the drugs never stopped my self-loathing, never stopped the 4AM struggles with whether or not I even wanted to be alive.

There's none of that this time around when battling the disease. The sleepless nights are passed in relative calm. Like I said, I make a lot of to-do lists. I eat breakfast at 3AM and take my meds so they get through my system before the baby wakes up again. We sleep in together some mornings, him nestled in the crook of my arm, as he has done since the moment he was born. These moments are fleeting, just as the sadness was momentary as compared to how much time I've spent actually healthy vs. in the throws of the disease; but, when you're there, the time stretches out, long, sinewy, and I have to force myself to just enjoy it. Instead, like this morning, when I couldn't sleep but RRBB was snoring happily, I had all the blog posts rolling through my head, enough to risk trying to put him down -- pop open go his eyes, wide smile on his face, and then we're downstairs, and then he's playing on his activity mat, and I'm playing with him, and then he's tired again and, here we go, he's sleeping on me for another hour and I'm starving and have to pee and would really like to make a sandwich or a smoothie.

And then, the day is just gone. My RRHB is back from errands or work or recording and gives me a chance to have a shower (oh, the humanity!). We make dinner and then it's the endless session of trying to get the baby down for the night. And this, this is how the time flies, all of a sudden another week has gone by and I've done stuff: gone to the mall, bought soap, made dinner (once!), got groceries, half-cleaned something, written more to-do lists, and am utterly exhausted having accomplished nothing. I am not a girl used to accomplishing nothing. My time is fractured all over the place -- sure, I've got lots of it, but it's filled up with the care of something so precious that my heart aches with the importance of it all -- and sometimes I wish, hating myself for it, that I could have just a little bit of it back. Yet, there's no resentment, no anger, just wishful thinking. I'm torn between the two lives that I've created: the old me, the non-mom and the new me, mother to the RRBB.

There was a writing contest I wanted to enter but probably won't because I never win writing contests. The theme, "How Motherhood has Changed You," seemed trite in a way, no, that's not the right word; too obvious, that's a better phrase, because the change is so shocking, so complete and so utterly different that for a slow learner like myself, it's hard to come to terms with -- 4 months in and I'm still searching for the right words to describe it.

I'm starting to impose some structure on our days. While not a routine per se, we do have story time in the morning. Lately we are reading Where is the Green Sheep, a new Mister Men book each day (because I ADORE them), some Dr. Seuss, and Oliver Jeffers. I'm not sure baby is paying any attention at all, mainly he gets excited by the kiss bombs in the middle of story time vs. story time itself, but I love reading aloud. Then he sleeps, maybe I sleep too, then we go out for a walk, run errands, and by the time we get back it's afternoon nap time -- which means I'm stuck for sometimes three hours in one place, if he's particularly fussy, playing iPad Scrabble and reading. I'm being relentless about dropping him in his bed when he nods off, but the wailing, good gravy, that ensues isn't worth it -- why would I WANT to make my child unhappy?

But it can't continue, oh, this accidental parenting (damn you Baby Whisperer, damn you). But I need some time. Just a little bit, just a teeny, tiny bit, to myself, and it can't be at 2 AM because I'm neither awake nor asleep enough in those moments to get anything accomplished. But I sure think about everything I'd like to accomplish. How has motherhood changed me? I don't think that it has -- my perspective, my day-to-day routines, and my life is certainly different, but I am still the same person, deep down, I still want all the same things. I still believe in all the same causes. I still want to do all the same things -- I just don't have any time to do them.

Winter was wonderful. But its time has come and gone. We managed brilliantly through snow storms and disease clouds. We still got out. We didn't go stir crazy. We almost destroyed our poor stroller for all the bumps and boulders on the sidewalks. Yet, I'm craving better weather, sunshine that actually carries warmth, ridding the car seat of bunting, and days where I can cart a pen and a notebook to a park with the RRBB and just sit outside. Just a few more weeks and I'll welcome the smell of melting dog shit and all the cigarette butts and other debris that litters the streets around my neighbourhood. There will be parks and swings and swimming and gardening and time will pass too quickly and I will try and savour every moment.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

#18 - Pretty Little Dirty

If I remember correctly, I wasn't terrifically enthralled with Amanda Boyden's second novel, and so I let Pretty Little Dirty languish on the shelves for, well, years. And while there were a few problems with the novel, I found myself reading it well into places in my life where I should have been sleeping, and that's got to be a sign that it moved me in some inexplicable way.

Lisa Smith (oh what a placid, everyday name) has been best friends with Celeste Rose Diamond (yes, you read that right; the names are terrible, I know) since they were both in grade six and moved to Kansas City from other, larger cities (Chicago and New York respectively) before the start of the school year. Their friendship is epic: they are destined to love one another in ways that only schoolgirls can -- utterly and completely, beyond a familial relationship and creating a bond that best friends know is there, even if they can't explain it -- they love one another above and beyond anyone else.

Celeste, of course, is utterly beautiful, and both she and Lisa are gifted academically -- so they excel at school, when it's in their interests. They are suburban girls looking for adventure, and they find it the summer before they graduate from high school in the form of an teacher and his students from the local art college. Experimenting with sex and drugs, Boyden's narrative matches the feverish way young girls have of barreling into adult life -- it rolls around and around, often repeating similar thoughts over and over again -- much like a conversation between girlfriends. She has a strange tick to her writing -- keeps telling us, the reader, that Celeste's story is far more interesting than her own, but then we never get the full story when it comes right down to it, because the book is told from Lisa's perspective. Celeste remains at arm's length from us, and maybe that's the way Lisa likes it -- she's as much in love with being Celeste's best friend as she is with the idea of friendship itself. The ultimate unreliable narrator, in a way, putting her subject on a pedestal and then never really letting the reader see how the sculpture came into existence.

I also like how, while there's very typical things in this novel that even reminded me a little of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides (minus the very important Trip Fontaine character, naturally) -- mother's with psychological problems, broken families, fathers that hold on too tight to their daughters, sex with older men -- Boyden intersperses this with the punk scene in the 80s, something that's kind of close to my heart. Not because I was remotely a punk, but there was a time when I used to sneak downtown to hang out with skin heads at a bar called Michael's on Queen Street across from the Big Bop, and grew up just at a time when the wrong Doc Marten's could get your head kicked in -- so much of this book, while set earlier than my own teenage years, reminded me of my youth. I didn't do nearly the same amount of drugs, and never dropped out of university, but the struggle to find myself, to define myself outside of the tragedy that defined my own family, as Lisa attempts to do by attaching herself to the Diamonds, well, that rang incredibly true.

It's hard to write teenage angst without it coming across as melodramatic, and Boyden does it so very well in this book -- there were problems with the book in places, mainly the sex scenes (they were a bit too much and a little "ride me like a stallion Morag" for my liking) -- but overall, once I started this book, I couldn't put it down. I actually avoided sleep training the RRBB so I could read more, which meant we spent a lovely few hours with him sleeping on me as I powered through the pages. Lastly, I really, really wish people would stop using the second person. I don't know why it bugs me so much, but it does. However, I would have given my left shoe to be at some of the shows Boyden describes throughout the narrative. Black Flag in 1982? Probably way too violent for me but what an experience.

The Summary: Another Off the Shelf book down, and while the alphabetical reading is now weighing me down a little (I'm really not liking my current book, In the Time of the Butterflies), I am getting through the books much quicker than I thought. I might start reading 2 or 3 in a row from any particular shelf just so that I'm not bouncing around so much and can get through a letter before moving on to the next. In fact, maybe that's what I'll start now and pause my current book because it's seriously boring.

#17 - Arthur & George

Oh, Julian Barnes, how I adored Arthur & George. From its opening pages right up until the end, it's a complex mix of the fictional and the historical, a comment on colonialism/literature, and a rollicking good adventure. The novel even encouraged me to download The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to my iPad (it's on the 1001 Books list anyway). I'm not quite sure how to alphabetize my ebooks into my reading yet so it might remain unread for some time, but I digress.

Told from either man's changing perspectives, with a few odd other characters thrown in, the novel brings to life to exceptionally interesting characters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, among others and George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half Parsee solicitor wrongly accused of a number of heinous crimes.

Doyle's a larger than life character -- both in the book and in his own mind, to a degree. He's the prototype for the colonial British man: athletic, sharp, intelligent, opinionated, moral, and just (to his own sense of duty and accomplishment, if that makes any sense -- we might question his upstanding "Britishness" under a post-colonial analysis and discover his beliefs lacking a broader, more realized context) and his confidence spills over every page. He marries a lovely woman because he should; and then promptly falls in love with someone else (but never acts upon his feelings in anyway that could be considered ungentlemanly). He strives to clear George Edalji's name because it's the right thing to do but doesn't believe in the suffrage of women. And it's these contradictions that make him such a fascinating character caught within Barnes's rollicking story.

George Edalji, a firm believer in truth with a capital "T" finds himself in quite a pickle when the local constabulary arrests him for mutilating animals and sending horrible, harmful prank letters to his own family. George, a solicitor by trade, firmly believes in the good, just righteousness of the legal system. It will save him. What he doesn't count on is the racism that feeds the decision to imprison him. Even when further animals end up mutilated, there's a "viable" explanation as per why George is still guilty of the crimes.When Sir Arthur reads about his case in an obscure newspaper, he sets his mind upon clearing George's name and helping him seek restitution for both his wrongful conviction and his imprisonment.

Even though their lives and personalities couldn't be more different, when they finally meet, their actions -- Doyle's "investigation" and subsequent attacks in the press and George Edalji's further insistence of his innocence -- challenged and then changed the existing legal system. But it is the personal lives of both men that keep the narrative from feeling dry and/or crisp. Barnes remains rich in his description of their lives, their wants, their needs, their loves (or lack thereof in the case of Edalji). He's also careful to keep a narrative distance. While we feel and know the racism behind George's conviction -- the staunch way that George himself refuses to believe it had any part in his troubles, how George firmly believes (and was brought up to be) himself to be an Englishman first, remains a fascinating part of his character. Goodness, I enjoyed this novel -- its pacing, the characters, the setting, the "investigation," -- all of it. It was a bright and welcome change -- to race through a book that you felt was somewhat flawless in terms of its prose and presentation.

I've never read any other Julian Barnes. I'm glad there is at least one other on my shelf that will be tackled the next time I reach the British section. It shouldn't take me too long. I can't believe that after finishing In the Time of Butterflies, I'll be back reading Austen again -- the last on my shelves.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Shelves: Their Glory


Here they are in all their glory: my beautiful, alphabetized books. My challenge: read every single one before I go back to work in October. Will I get there, doubtful, but I'm going to give it my all, or my eyeballs, so to speak. I probably will not read that Kleenex box, though. I didn't count the books but I estimate there's over 300 titles here, which is daunting, to say the least considering I've never even made it to 100 in a calendar year. Oh boy. What have I done?

#16 - Showbiz

I'm not going to lie -- I cursed my "I am totally determined to read everything on my shelves" challenge a little bit with Jason Anderson's Showbiz. Part-fan fiction, part faux-history, and part "journalist that gets caught in a thriller," the book, well, simply felt implausible to me. I'm not saying that Anderson isn't a good writer, and that he doesn't have one wickedly fun imagination -- both of these things are true, but this book wasn't for me.

Nathan Grant's a Canadian ex-pat journalist attempting to make it in NYC. He's broke, needs to find a job, a girl, a life. And when he stumbles across an old comedy record by a fellow named Jimmy Wynn -- he finally thinks he's getting somewhere. See, Wynn used to do an impersonation, a really good act, based around his contemporary president -- Cannon (who bears a thinly veiled resemblance to Kennedy). After Cannon's assassination, Wynn's act is ruined and he's on the run, disappeared into pop culture oblivion, because of a "secret" the president apparently imparted to him.

What Nathan knows he's got is a story he can sell to the magazine where his friend Colin works: The Betsey. It's dedicated entirely to the life and times of President Cannon. Bingo, he's pitched it, it's accepted and all of a sudden he's in Vegas trying to track down an aging comedian among bucket loads of aging stars all kicking out their last legs on the strip.

But where there's Cannon, there's conspiracy, and where the book turned into a strange film-like mess for me. I just didn't believe it, and that's my fault. I couldn't get passed the whole "faux" world in which it was written -- and Anderson heads off on a lot of tangents. The reader doesn't necessarily need to know the plots of every single B film that Wynn, in one of his many disguises after being disgraced, and nor do we need to read every single article or have each clue spelled out so exactly. The pop culture stuff within the novel was interesting but I've never been one for conspiracy theories and prefer to read my history straight -- not that I don't believe that fan fiction, which I kind of somewhat consider this to be, isn't a worthy enterprise, it completely is, but you have to accept and believe the action for it to work, and I just didn't with this book.

In the end, I finished it, but I did a lot of complaining while reading. I knew when my RRHB said, "What a great cover," that the book probably wasn't going to be for me -- and even though I enjoyed Nathan's almost hapless way of finding himself in the middle of the action and, like I said, am in awe of Anderson's amazing pop culture inventive imagination, on the whole I wanted just a tad bit more resolution and reality within this book. He could have gone even further with the satire and I would have enjoyed it more. I guess, that's what I'm trying to get at -- this book just didn't know exactly what it wanted to be (from my perspective). So, I have mixed emotions about this book. I want to support the writer, I think he's got an interesting talent, but the novel, overall, didn't really work for me.

But I think I'm a better person for reading it. It's important to read out of your comfort zone (literary fiction) and see what other kinds of novels are being published. See what other writers are coming up with in the wee hours of the night when their imaginary characters are being chased down by men with not-so innocent motives. If I were to give a good comp for this book, it might be the film St John of Las Vegas, which I actually enjoyed a great deal. It's got the same quirky, "mis-happenstance" feel to it that the novel strives for.

WHAT'S NEXT: I've started the utterly delightful Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, and am already enjoying it immensely. Then, we're into the Americans: Amanda Boyden's first novel, Pretty Little Dirty I think it's called.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XIII

"And I Start to Complain When There's No Rain"

Today we feel fantastic. We walked a giant loop today -- all the way to the butcher's in another neighbourhood and back again. Just about two hours, the RRBB and I, and he only cried once along the way. On top of that, he's still sleeping in his bassinet of all places, and not on me, so I am taking advantage and killing items one by one on my to do list like they are a shooting game at the Ex in August. Bam! Checkmark. Bam! Checkmark. Bam!

I saw the kidney doctor this week and my blood work keeps improving. My creatinine is the lowest it has been in months, and there's something called albumin that was well out of whack, which has also returned to normal. That's the good news. Of course, because it's me, there's also bad news. Once I stop breastfeeding, and both the SFDD and the kidney doctor recommend (or are encouraging me to stop) weaning him at six months, there's other medication that I'm going to need to start taking. I'd really like to do the entire year but we have to balance the continued health of my kidneys, which are still being damaged, along with still having some high blood pressure, from the preeclampsia.

Apparently, I could have high blood pressure for the rest of my life.

I am not happy about this. In the entire history of my disease, and that's twenty years of fighting it now, I have never had high blood pressure. So, it seems I have to do all kinds of things to try and regulate it outside of medication: eating better (yeah, right, while on prednisone; give me strength), getting exercise (walking, walking, walking and starting back at the gym in March), and taking supplements (garlic, etc). Once some of the baby/prednisone weight comes off, hopefully it'll improve too, but the end result is that I'll have to take something called an "ace inhibitor" for the rest of my life. It's protects your kidneys from the damage done by too much protein passing or something. They are blood pressure meds. I am disappointed that the preeclampsia has done so much damage and is taking so long to clear up -- that it might never clear up is even more upsetting, but what would be worse is losing my kidney function entirely, and ending up either on dialysis or needing a transplant. We don't need that kind of tragedy, we just don't.

It's been a long, long road back. Now that I have some perspective, and am that far away from everything that happened (next Thursday it's 20 weeks since I was admitted to the hospital), and the baby is a little bit older, the whole world seems, well, less oppressive. Also, I was thinking about how hard winter feels generally -- when you have to get up everyday and go out in it, when you don't have the freedom to curl up on the couch and snuggle with a baby if it's just too daunting -- and usually by this time, I am grumpy, aggressive, angry and really, really tired. Also, I generally go through my days with a giant ball of panic that sits right in the middle of my chest. Panic about work, about getting stuff done, about work politics, about my career (or lack thereof), and when I got my new job, all of that sort of disappeared -- sure, it was stressful, but I loved every minute of it.

So, I'm feeling conflicted these days. Now that I am feeling so much healthier, what kind of pressure can I put on myself to be better, to do better, to make better use of my days. A friend came over the other night and I was explaining to her how I feel, some days, like a very typical newish mom. I fill my days with "busy work" because I'm not the sort to sit still, but is this "busy work" worth it -- should I still be trying to rest instead of speed balling through to recovery. It's hard. I'm hard on myself. I set high, lofty goals. I demand a lot, and it's this pressure that probably caused the disease (among other reasons) in the first place. It seems that I don't know how to be unless I've got the giant, Pilate's ball-sized stress in my chest.

It's an unhealthy way to live. I know this. And I don't put this kind of pressure on anyone else in my life; in fact, just the opposite. I want my friends and family to happy, calm and content. I don't know why I can't put the same kind of goals into perspective when it comes to my own life. There's a part of me that takes everything so personally -- that holds on to meaning that's an impression and not truly a reality. Again, it's not a healthy way to live. It's not something I want to impart to my RRBB either, and certainly something that my RRHB finds hard to live with.

But back to the "typical mom" scenario. My RRHB has been doing a play all week with his new musical endeavor, Detroit Time Machine, and so I've been with the baby by myself a lot. For the first time in months, this is actually something I can handle. I'm not too sick to do it by myself. In fact, it's been actually kind of fun. So, we were looking for something to fill our days and I decided we'd head to the mall ("mecca" with a small "m"). I adore the mall. You can take the girl out of the suburbs but sometimes, you can not take the suburbs out of the girl: case in point, Sherway Gardens. It's just so, lovely.

So, the baby slept and slept and slept, and I refuse to wake him so it was late when we left the house, after 2 PM. I got myself all worked up that there would be traffic and he'd be miserable and maybe we shouldn't go at all, etc. But he was perfect and only fussed a bit on the way home, slept while I walked around, and all I saw everywhere I looked was other moms -- babes unbundled with semi-bored expressions on their faces. Some were even quite haggard (and if you've seen my hair, it defines "haggard"). And as I sat down, eating an ice cream cone and just people watching, the giant ball of stress dissipated. I don't know what happened. I just took some deep breaths and enjoyed the moment.

I know this seems silly -- but it's all a part of how I think I'm changing because of the baby. Yes, I did talk my girlfriend's ear off when she came over the other night because singing and talking all day to the baby isn't necessarily conversation. But, I am also enjoying the silence a lot more than I ever have before. I'm enjoying everyday life when it's not crammed into an already overstuffed weekend. I'm enjoying the new sounds the baby's making. I'm enjoying the winter. I'm enjoying not working. Don't get me wrong. I love my job and can't wait to go back, but I've never not worked, and even when I haven't slept, when the baby's cranky, when I'm all alone and feeling the pressure of taking care of another life, I'm still more calm than I ever was a year ago. And maybe that's what's contributing to making me better too. That and a little retail therapy. It seems I just can't stop buying soap.

Monday, February 14, 2011

#15 - I Curse The River of Time

Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time remains a novel about endings throughout its elegant telling of Arvid's final days with his mother, who is dying of stomach cancer. Yet, it's also a novel of disillusion, of abandon and of deep discontent. At 37, Arvid's on the cusp of being divorced, and has never truly quite found his place in the world -- if my mother were still alive, she would tell me this is a typical novel of someone suffering from "middle child syndrome." Something she referenced quite often, in jest, when referring to her place in her own family.

Unable to face the fact that his wife, partner, of the last 15 years no longer wants or needs him, Arvid reverts into childish behaviour, following his mother to their summer cabin in Jutland after discovering she's dying. Interspersed with the awkward and complex time he spends with his mother away from their father and the life they had both known for almost 40 years in Oslo, Arvid's erratic actions are explored in context of his earlier life -- when he was an ardent communist, a factory worker, a member of the peuple -- and how his convictions, as well as his strong beliefs, are also changing in lieu of both his age and where he is in his life. There's a lovely passage near the end of the novel that explains, perhaps, in part, his reluctance to let go of his marriage, of his beliefs, of his relationship with his mother despite the fact that each of these things are willfully being taken away from him:
...but when it came to dying, I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing to be scared of, but the dying itself I could comprehend, the very instant that you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.
In a way, Petterson's novel explores the death of communism itself through this character -- in his own disillusionment with the fact that it didn't succeed in Russia, that the wall came down in them middle of the action, and that Arvid has worked for many years, not as a proletariat, but in a lovely bookstore -- something that has made him extremely happy. Yet, he can't let his party platform go, he feels guilt over his own disillusionment with the politics, with his own failure to move forward beyond his university beliefs.

His complex relationship with his mother also underlines all of his actions. When he tells her he won't be going back to the university because he wants to become a full-time communist, she slaps him -- a gesture of frustration over his childish ways, of his inability to fully command his life in an adult way, of never being quite "old enough" but always being "too old" in her eyes.

This rich, complex relationship, as are many situations between mothers and sons, underlines everything that Arvid does in life. He can't seem to get her attention in the same way as his other three brothers, one of whom died tragically. She tells her best friend, Hansen, that he's not entirely a grown up, and this is tragically reflected in his actions towards the end of the novel when it becomes glaringly apparent that she won't live much longer. And still, Arvid's almost selfish ways impinge upon the way his mother chooses to live out the end of her life -- it's his divorce, his troubles, his lack of understanding why his world falls apart around him, that is the most tragic aspect of the novel.

Yet, Arvid's unhappiness, his inability to truly move beyond the earlier parts of his life that have consistently defined him, even loosely, remain grounded in a very real, very cognizant sense of place within the novel. Petterson dutifully explains Arvid's routes, where he walks, how he drives, the churning of the sea as he crosses the passage to his mother's summer home. All of the very real places one goes in one's life -- the train to work, the roads the flat sits above, the myriad of things that happens on the way somewhere (a man having a fit, a neighbour on a bicycle). To force the reader to realize, I think, in a way, that even if Arvid can't come to terms with his life, like the passage above illustrates, his life simply goes on anyway, even if your wife doesn't love you anymore, even if your mother is dying, even if the wall comes down.

Overall, it's a brilliant novel, it sort of reminded me of Mothers and Sons, even though those were short stories, in the exploration of the relationship -- but it's more a book about a mid-life crisis, not your typical "bucket list" bullsh*t, but a very real crisis of consciousness when everything that you once stood for, that you felt worth saving, that you felt worth protecting, has changed and you haven't. And you simply can't understand why the you that was the same last week isn't quite right for this one.

It certainly makes you think.

READING CHALLENGES: I already have a Norwegian entry for 52 Books, and I didn't even take this off the shelf, so that's zip for the reading challenges. But yay! to #15, I guess?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XII

I Have Always Slept With The Door Open

This is how I spend much of my days. Dressed in scrubby pajama-like clothes, hair -- a complete disaster, some sort of food or other mess stuck to my forehead, and a baby on my lap. Usually he's sprawled out on My Breast Friend, the awesome-est breast feeding pillow of all time, or on my elephant pillow that Sam gave me for upstairs, as I am either playing Scrabble on the iPad or reading. If you can believe it, we had company over this day. Yes, this is me "dressed" for company. I have owned that stolen sweatshirt for many, many years... it's actually embarrassing how old it is, which made me think a lot about what I wanted to write today: musings on the subject of permanence.

I know the above state is not permanent. That the baby won't always want or need to fall asleep on me or will even be an infant for much longer. The time goes by so fast. He's already 16 weeks, and will reach his 4-month birthday in about ten days. So, he's ever-changing. Whether it's a new sound he makes or a funny thing he does, it's delightful to see his personality emerge. He's an extremely happy baby. He maybe cries/fusses for about 15 minutes a day and usually only when he's overtired, so if we can catch him on the wave into exhaustion, he doesn't cry at all but does demand A LOT of soothing before crashing into sleep either on me or my RRHB, as noted above.

But when I was lying on the massage table after restorative yoga yesterday, and the RMT was pulverizing my back to try and get at the massive knots, she said that the best way to combat the muscle issues was to drink more water, get exercise and stretch it out. In my head, I thought, "And when does one have time to do ALL of that?" Plus, blogging, plus walking, plus taking a shower. Her actual words were: "I know having a baby can sometimes be time consuming...but..." And then I asked the dreaded question, "Do you have kids?" "No," she replied, "I have friends that do."

And therein lies the ultimate dichotomy: the complete disconnect between how much time -- and I am surely at fault here for my own misconceptions before having RRBB (I am not just being critical) -- a baby takes up in your life at this stage. The 2.5 hours I spent at yoga and getting a massage were the ONLY moments I have been away from the baby (with the help of the RRHB) in a week, since the last time I went to restorative. And next week, because my RRHB is doing a play, I will be taking the baby with me to yoga, and as well the week after that because he's back doing some work. I'm even taking the baby to see the kidney doctor on Monday. I have no choice. And this is the permanence I have been thinking about for the last couple days.

Way back in the way back, when I used to be friends with a woman who once dated my RRHB, they were discussing kids. Keep in mind, we've been together for almost 13 years so this is a long, long time ago, and I've known my husband since I was 15. Annnywaaay, this woman said that it's no big deal to have a baby in your life, you just mold them into what already exists, the change isn't that drastic. This was the argument she was using to try and convince him, at 25 or so, to have a child with her. He didn't buy it. And I am completely admitting my own ignorance. I thought the same thing. That they were like cute little bits of baggage, dress them up, pack them neatly, and cart them off. Yet, despite how utterly portable RRBB is at this age, that doesn't mean that the change to our lives is anything less that completely and utterly drastic, and, yes, permanent.

Yet, the idea of swift, permanent change isn't unfamiliar in my life. My mother's accident when I was fourteen; disease at nineteen, multiple job losses over the years; etc. I know how to respond to tragedy. It's almost always in the vein of Keep Calm and Carry On, push it all down, deal with it later, one day in front of the other, victory garden kind of stuff. I am strong, apparently, a "defeater of death" as one friend commented via email the other day, and it shows in especially hard situations. I can handle just about everything. Funny how all it takes is a wee, little 13-odd pound cutie-patootie to break me. And break me often. The disease didn't kill me. Losing my mother didn't kill me. All the other tragedy in my life only served to make me introspective and feed the desire to write novels where everyone dies in extremely horrific ways -- novels that will probably never get published. But the baby, wow, that's change on a whole other level that I was not remotely prepared for.

If he's tired, cranky, can't sleep, can't be soothed, has an injury, anything out of the ordinary (he had a rash the other day), and I go bonkers. I worry non-stop about it, can't stop talking about it, wonder how much I'm doing wrong on a daily basis, and honestly turn myself inside out until I am a little blurry around the edges -- you know, like that camera lens they use to make older actresses all soft and wispy. Even my mother-in-law has laughed and told me that I need to temper the worry a little. And she raised my RRHB who climbed the antenna of their house at 2 years of age, walked at 9 months, and rolled over at a week (a week!).

I suppose what's missing from this scenario, as compared to everything else I've dealt with in my life, would have to be the idea of tragedy. There's nothing tragic about our son with the exception of how he came into the world, in the sense that giving birth to him almost killed me, and we pretty much celebrate everything about him. It's a sense of happy contentment I have never known -- staring at him as he sleeps on me for the seventh hour in a day is very different from lying in bed crying because you miss your mother so much even your teeth ache from the loss. They are both permanent. I will never get my life back exactly as it was pre-baby. My kidneys will never work as well. My body is forever changed (have you heard me complain about the awful stretch marks, seriously, I look like a tiger). My mind never strays far from him. I think of so much in relation to him that one would think I was the only person in the world to ever have a child (how ridiculous is that?). It's all new for me, a new kind of coping, one where there are still plenty of tears, because, hormones. But I can laugh at myself a lot more now. I am trying to take things less seriously, less personally, because those are skills I want to impart to the baby.

Mainly, I don't want him to know the "me" before him, in a sense. I want him to know the me that celebrates his existence in my life, the person I'm evolving to because we had him -- there are things that I have come to know, about the idea of happiness, about what I need in my life, about the choices I've made, that are all a direct result of being pregnant, going through the whole WG attack, and coming out the other side. Yes, I am even stronger now, I suppose, which is actually kind of irrelevant. What's more relevant is how permanently and fundamentally different I am now. How permanently different our lives are now. We make decisions because of him, for him, around him, and that's okay. It's not just about us, even though the "us" that existed before (and that we had a glimpse of the other night when we went to see a band at Lee's Palace; twenty years I've been going there, sneaking in before I was of age, sneaking out well after) needs also to evolve, it's definitely a richer, broader existence.

We were looking for ways to expand our lives before the RRBB was even an accident waiting to happen. We were thinking of moving to the UK for a year, just to live somewhere else, swapping houses with another couple thinking of doing the same. My RRHB has been constantly evaluating what kind of work he'd like to do beyond the music, and needed time to explore his interests, and decide whether or not that involved going back to school. Funny how life sometimes decides things for you: the disease made me focus more on writing, on books, things that I had always loved but never imagined would turn into a career; losing my mother made me self-sufficient in ways that I wish I didn't have to learn but did; the baby has opened up my life and my concept of happiness in ways I never imagined or expected. All of these things are permanent. All of these things are drastic. All of these things are worth considering. All of these things make me who I am -- and even if I feel a little lost these days, there are anchors there that I never knew existed, and I am sure, even in a fit of hormone-induced tears, half-naked on the couch, exhausted, I am quite convinced that I won't float away.

I wasn't so sure a month ago.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

#14 - Emma

When I was younger, much younger, the first time I went to university, I sort of decided that "old" books weren't worth studying. I did my whole English degree trying to avoid anything remotely written before the 21st century. It wasn't easy. I think I had to do a Romantics and a Victorian class, along with Shakespeare, but I filled every elective with Post-Colonial, American, Modern British, anything to avoid what I perceived to be "boring" books.

No one ever said I was particularly smart in my youth.

But what it means is that I haven't read all of Jane Austen. I've barely scratched the surface of some of the best work in the English language, actually. And it's a good time of my life, two degrees later, working in publishing, to be reading these books for the 1001 Books list. So, in my quest for alphabetical order in my off the shelf reading, Emma came up first.

We all know the story: Emma Woodhouse makes all kinds of matchmaking mistakes, often puts her foot in her mouth, gets jealous, and sometimes becomes a person she doesn't like very much. Emma takes the young, impressionable, yet pretty, Harriet under her wing (a girl with lesser prospects and an unknown lineage) and finding her a suitable husband (first Mr. Elton, then Mr. Churchill, then, disaster when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma is not particularly pleased with this turn of events) becomes her goal. Throw in a little petty jealousy when the talented and accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax arrives on the scene and there's plenty of picnics and parties to entertain the romantic in everyone. Of course, there's a happy ending, and much emotional development upon Emma's part. In a way, it's a little bit of a coming of age novel -- as we watch Emma develop from girl to woman.

Any critical analysis of the novel on my part would be ridiculous, I'm sure there's nothing I can add to the conversation. We live in a society that's already Austen-obsessed: There are mugs (of which I own four), multiple movies, numerous (far inferior) books, and a whole host of ivory tower work surrounding her life and her novels. But I will say this, from a format perspective, in terms of pacing, humour, theme, and depth of character, Austen certainly defined the novel for, well, just about every novelist to come after her writing in this genre. The more I read, the more I am astounded at the depth of her structure, how it perfectly suits the characters, and reaches a conclusion, while completely predictable only because I've seen Clueless about a half-dozen times, that made me smile.

I read in the introduction that Jane Austen, while writing Emma, that she was creating a character that people wouldn't like very much -- and I heartily disagree. I loved Emma, couldn't stand Mrs. Elton (as I am sure I was supposed to), and thought that Jane Fairfax should just come clean already -- she'd feel so much better. See, how you just get caught up in them like they're real people? Sigh. So, I've got two more Austens on my shelf, so by the time I get back to the 1001 Books section, I'll have two more delightful reads before I get into the real down and dirty stuff that I've been avoiding reading for years (like Murakami -- I honestly have zero desire to read Murakami, but it's on my shelves and I will at least attempt it. But, luckily, it's in the "M's" so it'll take me months to get there. I've barely scratched the surface of the first letter of the alphabet on any shelf).

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I'm reading the new Per Petterson, I know, it's out of order, but I've got to read the books sent to me from the publishers -- they do get priority. Then I'll be back on my Canadian "A's", which I think is a novel by Jason Anderson from ECW.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

#13 - This Cake Is For The Party

One very good lesson for life: One should not read any other books whilst one is reading Emma by Jane Austen. They will all pale by comparison. So, it's unfair to This Cake is for the Party that I had to stop at page 258 in Emma for a couple of hours to read Sarah Selecky's short story collection for my book club.

This is not your average book club, just let me state that for a fact. I swore up and down, left and right, to hell and back, that I would never, ever join another book club. It's not that I didn't like my first book club experience. Let me just say it wasn't for me. The ladies were lovely people. But they weren't book people. It's important for book people to be in clubs with other like-minded book people. They don't have to all like the same books, they just need to read the books, want to talk about the books, want to talk about what works within the books and what doesn't. My first book club didn't do this -- we had a blow job class once, that's how far we fell. And I judged. And then I ruined that book club with one drunken night a club and some misheard gossip. Oh yes, but that's not a story for the internet. Like I said, lovely people, but now, my new club, The Vicious Circle, is full of delicious, delightful, delectable, defined book people. We talk books non-stop. I feel like I am swimming with my own school for once; it's an important feeling. Books are important. They start with words on a page; it's only fitting that people use words to critique, enjoy, discuss, etc.

Annnywaay, so, long story short, we read This Cake is for the Party this month. Now, I don't read a lot of short story collections. I tend to only go back to them if I've read a novel by an author I fall in love with and then double back to read earlier material. Case in point: Tim Winton. Or if the collection is written by Alice Munro, because, well, it's Alice Munro. But we've been reading a lot of short story collections for book club -- last month it was Jessica Grant, this month it's Selecky, and next month we are reading Alexander MacLeod's Light Lifting. I will freely admit that half-way through the meeting last night, I did say, "Can we then read a novel please?" It's not that I don't appreciate the art form -- it's that I expect a lot from it. The stories must have guts, be whole, feel intensely, and travel a long way from start to finish. These are high standards. But if you don't have high standards, what's the point?

Did Selecky's collection pull its weight? Not entirely. I'm being perfectly, perfectly honest now -- I would have never read this book were it not short listed for the Giller prize nor a selection for my book club. And even after dedicated two solid hours to it, and saying out loud to my RRHB as I read feverishly while the RRBB took an abnormally long nap in his bed, I did like it overall. A couple of the stories truly broke my heart -- especially "Where Are You Coming From Sweetheart," which is about a teenage, motherless girl having trouble with her father's completely inadequate parenting skills. She desperately wants to escape Sudbury and live with her aunt Juicy (LOVE aunt Juicy) and her cousin in Mississauga, where she wouldn't have to stalk local parks for empty beer bottles and water her father's growing collection of half-dead plants. There's an ache to this story that so accurately reflects what it's like to be in a house post-tragedy and it resonated with me personally for reasons I don't have to repeat here.

The other story that blew my mind, that had the guts I so search out in a short story collection, was "Paul Farenbacher's Yard Sale." Meredith, neighbour of Paul Farenbacher, starts the story calm, cool and collected as the widow of the story's namesake clears out her house after the death of her spouse. There's anger, resentment, and a wonderful, wonderful scene at the end that I won't spoil because it is delicious.

Lastly, there's a delicious ending to the second story in the collection, "Watching Atlas," that I wished more of the less strong pieces emulated. Often, I felt like the stories just ended for the sake of ending and, in the format, I truly believe that endings are even more important than beginnings.

But then, a lot of the stories feel too poised, they feel like they've been written and re-written, and there's one in epistolary format that didn't work for me at all. The other story that I really had trouble with was "One Thousand Wax Buddhas." There was the use of the second person. And this isn't something I can hold against Selecky. It's important to play with form to get to the heart of your characters, to push your writing to another level, but I really hate the second person. Again, this is a personal opinion. I also am not entirely fond of "quirky" for the sake of "plot" -- when characters have "quirks" that stand in for actual action -- which is a point that came up last night.

She's a polished writer, and there were some lines in this collection that were undeniably amazing. I earmarked about a half-dozen pages throughout, and even read a couple passages over because I liked them so much. There's also a coherence to this collection that was missing from Jessica Grant's book, these stories fit together even though they aren't linked, but Selecky needs to rely less on her own devices (lots of extra-marital sex [what is it with affairs and books for me these days]; plenty of hippies making work in their basements and other places in their houses; and male voices that weren't 100% believable). In a way, I felt these characters all needed to get out and live more -- but that's just me.

So, overall, my review of the book is mixed. Yes, I liked it. Yes, there were some truly great bits of prose. Yes, there were two or three stories that made me stand up and shout. And then there were some that weren't on the same level as the others, for me. I think it's important to read writers and read first books, to support the new generation of Canadian writers, and Selecky does that herself by teaching creative writing. But I got the sense that she has spent a lot of time with these stories. I am curious, now, to see what she'll write next, or to see what she'll publish less, if it'll be more stories or a longer piece of fiction. But, regardless, I am hooked. I will happily read whatever she does next.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

It's Jane Austen's World: We Just Live In It

From Emma:
"Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of the drawing-up, at various times, of books that she meant to read regularly through -- and very good lists they were, very well chosen, and very neatly arranged -- sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen -- I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time, and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with any steady course of reading from Emma. She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding..."
As Mr. Knightley explains why Emma should not necessarily become good friends with Harriet, about page 26.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Notes From A House Frau XI

What A Difference A Day Makes

I saw the SFDD today, and what a difference a couple of weeks makes. The meds have been in my system for longer, and the disease is finally, FINALLY starting to respond. My kidney function is still elevated, but that could be damage from the pregnancy and the preeclampsia -- I just have to accept the fact that things will not go back to my "normal." As as my wise, wise RRHB said last night when I was a little teary crying, "I just want to feel like myself again," "But you aren't your old self, you're a mother now, too."

So often, I am concentrating on the things that I've lost -- my health, my brain, my freedom, and not resenting the losses, per se, but learning how to adapt to this new life is taking a bit longer than I'd imagined it would. I've been reading a lot of interesting "mom" articles lately, and for the most part, they infuriate me. Case in point: "And Baby Makes Three..." and here's where it all starts to fall down for me:
It’s nothing short of impressive, the way these new mothers embrace their changing bodies as a home for baby to grow in and feed from. The way that they innately know what their baby needs and can recognize the meaning behind every sound or gesture and can usually provide what’s needed to soothe them.
While this isn't an incorrect observation, what the author fails to realize is the hours spent listening to your child wail, the many different ways of bouncing, rocking, walking, talking, feeding, feeding some more, and feeding some more before a mere piece of the puzzle -- how to separate a "tired" cry from a "hungry" cry -- reveals itself only to change radically the next day as your RRBB's brain changes from, literally one day to the next.

For me, this is just filler content. Why even write this article if you don't have anything remotely remarkable to say? Why capitalize on a cutsie, overdone, cliched head to go on to say how remarkable new moms are? I know I'm being harsh -- but I think this piece would have been a lot more effective had the blogger job shadowed a new mom for an entire 24-hour period versus dropping in via Auntie mode, which, I too, mistakenly thought having a full-time baby would simply be an extension of.

And then I read Katrina Onstad's piece in the Style section about how Spanx now has maternity options and threw up a little in my mouth. Pregnancy ravishes your body enough -- I've gained weight that I can't lose because of the prednisone, have stretch marks that are truly, truly awful, a c-section scar, and a pooch. I can't imagine the damage you're doing by forcing your body to not look pregnant -- how does the baby move around? Hell, you aren't even supposed to wear tight clothing when you're pregnant; it's ridiculously uncomfortable anyway. Shouldn't we be allowed to let it all hang out when we're growing a person inside of us? I mean, it's hard enough to let go of the vanity (I truly did love my trim waist and my smooth, pretty stomach; all that has disappeared for now) after you give birth but to be "fashionable" by squishing down your baby bump? What is the world coming to?

And then we come to the all consuming topic of happiness. My goal in life has never been to "be" happy -- but to understand happiness in relation to the truly tragic aspects of my life. Happiness isn't a goal, it's not something to be achieved for me, it's something to be understood -- it can't be an item on a to do list, it takes hard work to understand yourself, to know what gives you pleasure, to avoid what gives you pain, and to realize that if you put "be happy" as a goal, you are automatically setting yourself up for failure. I was bombarded with "happiness" last week -- Oprah had Goldie Hawn (wha?), a so-called expert, on her show, and it made me think a lot about the years I spent in therapy saying, "but I just want to be happy" without truly understanding that it's as much a philosophical construct as it is a smile on your face. My goal in getting through these first few weeks of parenthood has never been happiness -- my goal, as a good friend says, has been to keep my child alive, maybe, just maybe, have them thrive a little bit. The cult of Oprah's a bit much these days -- from the vegan challenge (been there, done that, um, last year) to the pale attempt to trivialize a very real, and very complex human condition (to Gretchen Rubin it, I'd say), and yet, I just can't stop watching it.

Anyway, what is my point. I must have one. Yes. In my life I have always wanted to have children, whether they were mine or adopted, whether they were my nephews or nieces, I love having them in my life. And just when I had accepted the fact that we weren't going to have any of our own for various reasons -- the main one being the very real toll it could take on my health -- I had actually, for the first time in my life, moved on. And then, surprise! We're pregnant and 36 weeks later, we're parents. And in between I spent three weeks in the hospital fighting for my life cursing the doctors that told me everything would be okay when, seriously, everything was simply not okay. Not okay.

But now, things seem to be coming back in line, and I can take a step back from "coping" with everything that happened to "enjoying" what's going on now. I'm not going to say that articles like "When Baby Makes Three..." don't completely trivialize how drastically and never-endingly parenthood changes your life; instead, I'm just going to giggle a little at their naivety. At my own naivety -- I too once truly believed that being married and having a baby would equal "happiness." That I cried and cried because those things, because of the disease (not the marriage part, natch), were denied to me like so much else in my life (was I ever REALLY going to be a modern dancer, probably not, so it's okay that the disease destroyed my hip). When really, what it's all about is finding a way to a different, newer, you -- like my RRHB said, I'm never going to be the same "me" that I was 17 weeks ago when I went into the hospital, so why feel bad about it? Why worry about it? Why struggle with it? Why not let myself evolve along with the RRBB and see who comes out at the end -- maybe she's happy, maybe not, but one thing I do understand is that it's not as easy as taking a quiz or writing some bland pap about how majestic your "mom" friends are (mine are awesome; don't get me wrong). I am not a "yummy" mommy. I've got grey hair and loads of stretch marks. I have a "moon face" from the meds. But I can still make my RRBB smile like there's no tomorrow -- and there is bliss there, I don't need Oprah to tell me that.

And seriously, we need real dialogue about what happens to us, to our bodies, to our marriages, to our lives, to our health. We don't need a Hollywood fantasy or "perfect" moms or the pressure to do it all "right" or the heavy, heavy weight of "happiness" making it all harder to get through the day-to-day. Sometimes, all we need is an organic lollipop and a cup of tea, maybe a cookie -- a couple of deep breaths, a good book and the time and space to write a few words. See, I'm starting to know this new me, she does look a little like the old me, just turned a couple of degrees to the south.

#12 - Purple Hibiscus

Purple Hibiscus is an assured and impressive debut from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: what a difference between it and the other first novel that I just finished reading, The Very Thought of You. There are none of the first novel jitters in Adichie's work: the plot and pacing are excellent; the story crescendos at exactly the right moment, her prose is bright, lively and interesting; and, layers upon layers of fascinating observations exist between the essence of "family" and the breakdown of the "state" as Nigeria becomes subjected to a military coup.

Kambili and her brother Jaja, along with their mother, Beatrice, live in constant fear of their father, Eugene, a complex, difficult and deeply religious man. His Catholic faith sustains him, but it also represses his family, creates a power vacuum, and ultimately results in some of the most gut-wrenching violence (not related to a crime novel) I've read in a long, long time. Eugene rules his household with an iron fist, one clasped entirely to a rosary, and when his wife or children stray -- whether it's to talk to or see their "heathen" grandfather or to not become first in their class -- the consequences are dire. The children, aged 15 and 17, live in constant fear of their father's fists, his belt, his whip, and there's no telling exactly what will set him off. Set against his rigid rules and regulations, Kambili and her brother find a few weeks of freedom when they go to visit their aunt, Eugene's sister, Ifeoma. The time they spend with her changes them forever.

The backdrop of the family drama is set against a military coup happening in Nigeria. It's fascinating that Eugene, so brave (he runs a newspaper as well as owns a number of factories that make food) in his intentions to resist the powers of the regime. He refuses to bribe the police officers, sends his newspaper editor into hiding, and remains incredible generous to the people who work for him. Yet, when it comes to his family, he simply can not see that subjecting them to the extreme Catholic values that he believes, in his heart, will save his and their souls, through the violence and an extreme restriction of their basic human rights echoes the very nature of dictatorship. I think this dichotomy, for me, strikes a cord that resonates throughout the entire novel.

Kambili can't speak without stuttering, doesn't smile, lives in constant fear of her father's punishment, but she also loves him, as a daughter would. Her father's violence whether it's towards her, her brother or her mother, is simply another facet of everyday life. In a sense, I think this is why her voice feels so much younger than 15 -- she's suspended in a strange, awkward childhood, and only begins to blossom when she stays with her aunt and sees how normal teenage girls act. Kambili's a lovely character -- bright, intense, open, honest -- and when you feel her father's blows upon her back, you want to cry out for her to run away, to fight back, and when she finally does, it's a revelation.

There's so much to love about this novel, the setting, the way Adichie uses traditional language, the explanations of food, of their daily lives, and the rich landscape soiled, in a way, by the corruption that's all around. Violence, at home or by the state, is an everyday part of life, yet Kambili can still see the beauty in a simple, special purple hibiscus. It's an impressive thing to not have your spirit broken -- something I admire intensely about this book, and something that I strive for in my own everyday life. And even when things are truly, truly horrible, there's still a goodness in Kambili that can't be broken, scarred maybe, but even those find a way to heal eventually.

READING CHALLENGES: Around the World (Nigeria) and Off the Shelf.

WHAT'S NEXT: I'm on "A" from my 1001 Books shelf, so I started reading Emma this morning. I love that I have spread out the Austen to read in my lifetime. I would be sad if I had already read them all. I'm exited I still have three to go.