Monday, July 30, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: All the Voices Cry

I do a lot of book reviews in the academic world.  This is my first for the blog.  If you'd prefer to read about poo, please skip to the entry below (though I notice I mention poo in the review too--egads my brain is only ever scatological).

I’ve been friends with Alice Petersen since we were both graduate students at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.  Alice was, in fact, responsible for orienting  an incoming class of students which included me.  She took us to the lake, and then sat in dog poo accidentally and had to excuse herself.  I remember her handling the incident wryly, accommodating both gross factor and funniness.

That skill in handling what Keats, with more plangent tones, might call life’s “mingled contrarities” is fairly central to Alice’s writing, as All the Voices Cry proves.

The collection of short stories presents characters humbled by circumstance (middle-age, bachelorhood, loss, infidelity, and, frequently, too much responsibility for another’s welfare).  Deftly, these characters are not figures of Tragedy, for Alice writes them as vulnerable and odd.  They respond to circumstance making all manner of peculiar bargains with the mundane world (just as real humans under duress do). 

One protagonist tries to make a cancer remedy from scratch (bargain: it will help her sick mother and perhaps redeem their relationship).  Secretly though, this woman would like her mother to die: it’s a surprise even to her when she thinks it “Isabella stopped short.  She had not expected this thought to occur to her.”  Isabella is caring and uncaring, thoughtful, yet delightfully obtuse to her own motives.  So too is the mother who imagines how easy it would be to leave her son to her sister’s care but decides not to, and also the wife who leaves her husband in a remote location while on holiday, returns their rental car, and waits for her flight at the airport before finally, reluctantly, taking a taxi to retrieve him.  

These women are fantastically ambivalent even as Alice has them experience the most profound emotional moments in  human life.  I love this, for Alice’s characters are unclear about their feelings in definitive moments, and aren’t we all?  Ordinarily, our uncertainty is not terribly funny, and we cover it up with the rhetoric of certainty.  In All the Voices Cry, it is funny though.  Humans are odd, weird creatures looking up from under their bangs to try and see things more clearly, and often having no idea at all how to feel about what they see.  It’s not just women protagonists here: a favorite character of mine is Norman, who thinks he will die on a certain day, and tries to travel across the international dateline to cheat fate.

The second half of the collection is especially good: Here Alice is as accomplished and proficient as that Other Alice (Munro), and I think even better,  for Alice Petersen’s plots move with a quicker, lighter foot through the most embattled terrain of human relationships.

There are fantastic words evoking far-flung locales : “Tabernouche” in a conversation in Quebec rubbing shoulders with a New Zealand “great matai tree . . . huge and towering [with] flax and ferns and moss that sprouted along its branches.”  Alice interweaves stories in this latter part of the book too, so that a couple wearing leis and necking next to a bank machine in an airport appears, as incidental background, in two stories.

Throughout, characters are haunted by memory.  They remember themselves as younger and more lovely, they remember people who have long since died, and they remember the ways they used to love.  Alice even has characters remembering how certain events become canonized in gossip, as in, for instance, the case of “Scottish Annie . . . dandling her young man in the bedroom while the house burned down and the baby sat in the backyard with Lord Knows What in its mouth.”

All the Voices Cry is a good summer read (so much takes place outdoors in this collection), a good read for those with responsibility, ambivalence and oddity in their life (most mothers that I know), a good read for those with wanderlust (Quebec, Tahiti and New Zealand, Oh my!) and just generally a good read, even if you don’t happen to be lucky enough to know the author personally.  

Cats & Children, as Compared to Dogs

One thing cats and children have in common is their desire to sully a freshly cleaned bathroom/ litterbox.

The first thing a cat will do upon seeing you clean its litterbox?  Climb in and defecate odiferously, relishing the fresh litter between its toes.

So with bathrooms.  The first things Winton, for instance, will do when presented with a clean bathroom?  Defecate odiferously, attempt to wipe himself (so besmearing the toilet rim) and hop off the toilet, depositing a small daub of poo on the bathroom floor.

On this one issue, I prefer the attitude of dogs by far: a dog will choose a spot far from home, ideally, in which other dogs have already pooped.  A dog prefers to poo in an area that isn't clean, that hasn't been freshly sanitized.  A dog likes to leave its poo on a busy message board of other dogs's poo-odors: a clean place is no fun.  Would that the children would choose to poo far from home as well.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Truculence du Jour

Me: "Clara, can you clean between your toes, please."
Clara: "Absolutely not."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Keeping it real

My book came out yesterday, with a cover, and pages, and an isbn and everything:
The Writer and the Overseas Childhood: The Third Culture Literature of Kingsolver, McEwan and Others.

In order that my ego not revel too long, or that my soul not transcend the bounds of mundanity, fate determined that I arrived home after work (first day back after vacation) to discover our ac broken, again.

It's not so bad as long as we still have some power, but it is a bit uncomfortable.

The zinger: the receipt for our July 5 repair of the ac had been on the floor in the kitchen corner all month.  I knew exactly where it was.  But yesterday, mysteriously, it was gone.  I needed the receipt, for ac repairs are costly, and if the company installed a faulty part I darned well didn't want to have to pay for it again.

I searched the basement (in case the cats had taken it for a toy).  I searched my mail bin (in case I absent-mindedly had put it somewhere sensible).  I searched the recycling (which is where is ought to have been if not somewhere sensible).

And then I opened the garbage.  Fruit flies lifted from the rinds of the morning's cantaloupe.  Things oozed from detritus warmed by the afternoon sun in our currently un-airconditioned kitchen.  A doggie poop bag (tied shut but still gross) cradled a rotting tomato.

I sorted by hand until, under a dripping styrofoam container that had held chicken breasts, I found the receipt.  Wet, bacterial, but legible.  I left it out on the back porch to dry and then sealed it in a zip-lock bag.

Today the repair company has been singularly unhelpful.

I am contemplating putting the receipt back in the garbage, under the festering chicken container, for a while before I hand it to them for perusal, IF they ever show up . . .

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Accidental Marathon

We are closing in on the end of my three-week vacation with the children (our staycation).

Having kicked the holiday off with the derecho (unexpected storm with high, persistent winds) and several days of power outage during which we camped at different hotels, and at my office at work, I proceeded with the following primary agenda: let the children have experiences they don't normally have at preschool.  This agenda requires balancing the following opposing forces: 1) their desire to stay home and do nothing (legitimately something they don't get to do on a typical school day) and 2) my, and sometimes their, desire for novel experiences.

In #1: we've drawn, made an entire first nation's community and their teepees out of playdough, played endless games of Zingo!, read a lot of library books, built things out of furniture, blocks and pillows, swept up after mowing the lawn, made structures with marshmallows and spaghetti, made a racket with musical instruments, made a water-glass orchestra, made pizza from scratch, and ridden scooters on our own front sidewalk.

In #2: we've gone to the library on a weekday, taken the dog to the vet (more informative and entertaining than you might imagine), had playdates with a variety of different friends, swum many times in 4 different pools, 3 of which were outside, tried on Clara's BIA school uniforms, bounced on castles at the Ultimate Playzone, and (thanks Husband) finally had a weekend outing to a museum which didn't entail yelling at the children to stop running.

Today's #2 adventure was to, finally, take a city bus.  There's one that runs past our house (#36).  My plan was to take the bus north, go for a playdate at a new friend's house, and then take the bus south again.  On the MTA transit map this looked entirely do-able AND it's only 91F today.

Thing is, the walking distances are given in minutes, not miles, on the MTA site.

You try walking a "16 minute" walk with a pampered 5 and 3 year old.  I dare you.

The 3 year old rapidly collapsed into a whinging sweaty lump requiring carrying and demanding only to be carried on my left hip ("The other side's not nice, Mummy").    The 5 year old consequently walked the whole way, and I walked the whole way, to and fro, holding her sweaty hand with my right hand and 35lbs of cranky Winton in my left (surely now much longer than its counterpart).

Coming home and calculating distances with the help of a map, I see we walked 10,500 feet or so, which is about 1.99 miles, or 3.22 kilometers.

The buses were a hit though (perhaps because they offered ac and seats).

Monday, July 16, 2012

Play dates

Do other people find them this exhausting?

After a playdate, I'm ready for a nap a-la Rip van Winkle.

Mind you, today's playdate at our house featured: dog vomit (twice), cat vomit (once), Winton excluded from games and understandably demanding as a result (trips to the toilet with him: 5) and an impromptu lunch for 4 children and 2 adults.  All in 3 hours.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

re: my spoiled children

Every few months there's an article in the American media about the monstrous behavior of our children.  I've read of how our children are spoilt because: they don't contribute to the household, they get everything they want, they watch too much tv,  and they eat poorly.

My children are spoiled.  (Note: I didn't choose the perfective of the word, "spoilt," because I believe things can be turned around.)  Here are my thoughts on why:

Though I am currently on a three-week summer staycation with my children (my first such vacation that I can remember since entering graduate school), I work a full time job.  Thankfully, I am an academic, which means I can manipulate my hours to the children's advantage, but still.  Husband works a full time job in Washington, DC: this adds 3+ hours of commute to his work day.

Reason 1 for the spoiled children:   I have a lot on my plate.  When I am with them, I want my time with them to be nice.  I don't want to fight.  This means I roll over to the dictatorial demands issued from their 3 and 5 year old mouths quite a lot, just because I want to be able to be with them and be happy.

Reason 2 for the spoiled children:   I am accustomed to making sacrifices in some places, several of which are certainly the wrong kinds of places to be making sacrifices (I fetch and carry for the children, a lot; I still wipe the 5 year old's arse; I still respond to night-time concerns that they can't see their fingerprints in the dark).  But, I am also terrifically spoiled in others: if I want to go for a latte at Atwater's, I go for a latte at Atwater's.  The children get treats out of the excursion.  If they are rotten little monsters, we should stay home and they should not get treats. BUT, it is darned hard for me to give up on a plan, and for me to sacrifice the thing I wanted.

Reason 3 for the spoiled children: Our children's preschool is fantastic, and I have no complaints.  It is, however, true that their bottom line in terms of behavior-management is achieving peace, stability and order in a group of children.  Children don't like negative consequences (aka punishments) and tend to yell, scream, writhe and flail when on the receiving end of them.  Thus, children in a preschool setting probably get off pretty lightly in terms of consequences for bad behavior (and who can blame a teacher for not wanting a room full of yelling, screaming, writhing and flailing id-kids?). 

Reason 4 for the spoiled children: Time.  Holy crap on a hastily-made tostada is time ever an issue.  It can't always have been like this, can it?  No, surely not?  I know, from experiences living elsewhere in the world (Ghana, for example), that other people do not live constantly scurrying to keep in front of the sweeping arm of the minute-hand on our watches.  I manipulate things to go as fast as they can. In many regards time is the factor behind all of those articles in the media observing problems with our children.

-Children don't contribute?  Of course not.  It takes so much damn longer to get them to fold the laundry and put it away.  Who has time?

-Children get everything they want?  Of course.  If I'm rushing to finish something it is faster to give the child what s/he wants than to wait out their fury when they don't get it.

-Children watch too much TV?  Yup!  Because if they are plugged in and subdued, I have more time to get stuff done.

-Children eat too much junk?  We actually do really well on this one.  I cook.  My children eat home-cooked meals 95% of the time.  However, I totally get how fast food appeals because it saves so much time.

I'd like to wrap this up into a tidy 4-item list for familial improvement now, but boy are my fingers resisting typing it.  The obvious answer is that my children are spoiled because I am spoilt.  Conversely, maybe my children are spoiled because I am punishingly over-worked and ground down by trying to do a full time job and parent.  Solutions include all kinds of impossibilities like staying home, or retreating to life in a yurt in a third world country whose approach to the clock is more lacksidaisical.

Today's resolve is merely (merely!  This is f-ing HUGE for me) to let things get messier.  Today, I let them both have messy hysterics as I bundled them back into the car: both had been arguing with me, and refusing to do what I asked.  Therefore we went home and did not have lunch at Atwaters as planned (and I did not get my latte!  Oh internet, please give me some sympathy for my heroic self-sacrifice).  I'm going to have to let the dishes get messy if I want the kids to put them away, and the laundry will need to be lumpily folded.  We will have to have conflicts, even when I just want to be happy.

My bottom line is that I don't want them to be spoilt.  I'm going to have to suck up all the ways they will yell at me and then punish them appropriately for having yelled (Note: not by any violent means, just by withholding over-indulgences).  I feel I've grazed the sharp edge of an American cultural problem with my bottom line: parents are supposed to dote and love.  It is very hard, in our culture, to see discipline as part of doting and loving, not as their opposite.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dreams, remembered

My memory of what transpired in the middle of the night:
Clara: "Mummy, I had a bad dream."
Me: "Oh.  What was it about?"
Clara: "Three pigs reading."

Clara insists, this morning, that she said "ghosts" not "pigs" but I could swear I heard right.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Returning to Normalcy

We have returned to our normal lives (including massive environmental footprint).  It's still darned hot outside though.  To avoid the heat we've gone bowling (two chubby thumbs up from Winton), to Port Discovery (sensory overload for us all, with aircon to goosepimple levels), and to an obscure neighborhood pool near Perring Parkway (the most uncomfortably warm of all of the above).

Today temperatures dipped to 93F.  To celebrate, Husband baked a blueberry peach pie which was gooey nirvana and worth every extra degree of heat in the kitchen.  As Winton said, after methodically devouring his slice, "Please, but please, can I just have more peach sloppy?"

In Clara and Wintonisms:

Clara "When I grow Up, I'm going to be a singer"
Winton "When I grow UP, I'm going to destroy Clara's songs"

Tomorrow begins week two of my three week staycation with the kids: may it be less discombobulating than last week.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Meltdown Season

The scene: breakfast room in the "Best" Western over stale fruit loops and yogurt with fructose appearing three times as an ingredient.  The weather forecast on the mammoth screen in the corner: temperatures over 100F from Denver to DC.  Baltimore's forecast (99F) not the highest of the bunch, but not the lowest either.  Seems the time for the great environmental planet over-heating due to indulgent, wasteful, dissipated and dissolute living is upon us.  I am appalled, headachy, and irresponsibly cranking the hotel ac for all it is worth.

Observations, random:
Not all 2.5 star hotels are equal.  We're at the "Best" Western after an urgent need for coolness.  We were supposed to be home last night, the power back on.  It wasn't.  The previous two nights we were at the The Hampton Inn in White Marsh.  Hampton feels like a much pricier hotel than it is (shame it's in White Marsh though.  What's up with White Marsh??  It feels like something that was utopic on paper and has turned out to be an industrial park studded with PFChangs instead).

Always run the sink garbage disposal after doing dishes, just in case the power unexpectedly goes out and it unexpectedly happens to be the middle of a heat wave.  If there's food left on those blades down there, flies come, and then maggots, and then when you run water into the sink maggots float up in a squirmy creamy raft.  Bleach doesn't kill maggots.  They are remarkably resistant to boiling water too.

Children don't sleep well in unfamiliar spaces, and get less and less manageable.
Unfamiliar spaces (like hotels) require children to be more managed than usual.  In combination with the above?  Not so good.

Pets hate it when you "visit" three times a day but don't live at home.  They hate it.  Droopy hounds stop eating.  Feral cats stalk angrily.  Affectionate cats shun you.  Long haired cats hide.