Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Babies ... Are Listening!

Words continue to tumble out of Munchkin, more and more and more words: jacket! hat! climb! on! off! cheese! sit! dragon! tickle! I wrote in my last post that I was amazed at her new capacity to speak--that her receptive language was good, but her ability and willingness to talk was new.


All of a sudden, Pynchon and I noticed nervously over the weekend, it has become abundantly clear that Munchkin is actively listening when we talk. Not just when we talk to her, but when we talk to each other. She has developed the ability to pluck from a stream of adult conversation the one word that is meaningful to her, and to act on it. An example: last night, while bathing Munchkin, Pynchon and I discussed the wild rise of the Canadian dollar against the American, and how possibly the subprime mortgage credit crunch and the general bubble-state of the US housing market might play into this. (Yes, we're dorks. But Munchkin seems happy just farting around with her tub toys at this point, and she mostly gets clean by flailing around by herself, so why not pass the time in intellectually-stimulating chit-chat about international economic policy?). As the word "bubble" passed Pynchon's lips, Munchkin's hands flew up to her shampooed head. She rubbed hard before bringing her hands down in front of her: they were covered in bubbles, just like in her storybook where the main character "is funny in my bath, when I make bubbles in my hair."

From the nonsense stream of phonemes issuing top-speed from a conversation she's not party to--a conversation she assiduously ignored as she jammed Rubber Ducky into the little plastic bucket and then tipped him back out--she pulled 'bubble' from thin air, and linked it to a story in which bubbles can be found in one's hair. And found bubbles in her hair. Delighted, she exclaimed, "Bubble!" and Pynchon and I just let our jaws hang.

She's listening? Uh-oh.

* Baby ears not to scale.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Run, kitty, run!

Poor Crazy Kitty, our long-suffering, beleagered tabby. Not only do we largely ignore her since Munchkin's been born, we also lock her in the basement at night to keep her from meowing us all awake at 2am. And now, worst of all, the hairless cat replacement has become mobile and cat-obsessed. How cat obsessed? Well, the other morning, Pynchon and I were awakened to the sound of soft meowing. Coming from Munchkin's room and, in fact, emanating from Munchkin herself. Pulling into the driveway after daycare, Munchkin shouts out, as I have laboriously taught her, "HOME!" and then, unprompted and unschooled, points to the kitchen window level with her carseat and asks, "Cat?" because, once, when we pulled into the driveway she looked out her window and found herself face to face with PCK who was sunning herself there.

Munchkin's love for PCK is passionate: intense, and a little violent. The cat is subjected to rough pawings and much tail-pulling. Her feet are grabbed. She is chased. But the 'C' in PCK stands for 'crazy' largely because our cat lacks an instinct for self-preservation. She never evades Munchkin by more than two feet, and thus foils us in our parental attempts to avoid violence by separating the amorous baby from her much-mauled object of affection. The much-mauled object of affection simply will not take the opportunities for escape we so assiduously try to provide her with.

Now, Pynchon and I are reduced to forcibly holding back Munchkin, often in mid-lunge and apprehended by the chest, and hollering at the cat in increasingly frustrated tones, "RUN, KITTY!!! RUN!!"

Proving the law of unintended consequence, the only party to learn anything from this much-repeated practice is Munchkin, who has come to understand that the proper greeting to offer a cat upon whom you are about to pounce is, "Run! Kitty! Run!" And so that's what she shouts, as soon as she sees the cat, as soon as she is up on her feet about to give chase. The house rings with frantic feline mewlings and gleeful toddler warnings. Run, kitty, run.

We are noticing that Munchkin is absorbing language like a sponge lately. She has always really understood a lot of what we say to her. What is surprising is that it is, all of a sudden, coming back out.

In addition to the quite useful "run, kitty, run" phrase, this week Munchkin has learned: "lap" (while patting your leg), "shoe", "sleep", "nap" (while pretending to undertake said activity on the floor), Coco (her bear), "doudou", "milk", "bottle", "nipple" (in reference to her own, not the bottle's), "more" (accompanied by the sign, learned at daycare), and "please" (ditto). Her old standard, "up?", is of course still very much in use. More often than not, if you say a word and ask her to repeat it, she will. This is new.

Once more, I look at my Munchkin as though she is an alien being dropped into my house. When did my little lump of hair and hugs and hunger and grunts become a creature of language? This is one of those milestones, again, that kind of snuck up on me. When did her four or five spoken words suddenly become twenty? Suddenly become greater than my capacity to list? And, most surprising of all: the last couple of days, we're pretty sure she's calling me by name: mamammmaaaammmmaaaaamamama. Wow.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Critical Mass

Friday was 'critical mass' at my university: all the cyclists congregate at a given time and place, and commute en masse through the centre of town, to raise awareness of cyclists and cycling. I understand the point--hey cars! share the road!

Unfortunately, Munchkin and I got caught behind them as they blocked our road home. It was a matter of one red light. Waiting at the edge of the ring road at said red, I watched them all pull out, at least two hundred of them, from the parking lot across the street. I was dismayed. Our usual 8 minute commute home instead took half an hour and about 4 extra kilometres of travel. I wanted so badly to get home, to start the weekend, to unstrap us from our seat belts and park the car until Monday, to get out in the sun. Ironic, then, that the bicyclists trapped us on the road, trapped us in our car. I saw one of my students in the mass, weaving around, waving a flag. I support the cause. I've ridden in a critical mass ride before. I would love to ride my bike to work like I used to. But Munchkin changes things, changes me, changes what we, as a family, do, the choices we make.

This is my post for September's BlogHers Act Canada, on the topic of 'reduce'. And maybe on the challenges to said reduction posed by parenthood.

Reducing, for us, is a balancing act: we can reduce mileage on our car by taking the bus to daycare ... but this reduces also our time together as a family, and increases our commuting time. We could reduce packaging by shopping at the bulk grocery club store ... but this increases the mileage on the car and reduces our connection to our own neighbourhood, whose relatively expensive grocery store we can walk to. We could reduce waste by switching back to the cloth diaper service we used for the first seven months of Munchkin's life ... but we would increase by far the amount of laundry we do, the number of diaper changes and clothing changes and bedding changes from the leaks.

We try hard to remain conscious of the costs of our practices. It's never perfect. But neither is it hopeless, or zero-sum.

The choice: commuting by car, commuting by bus.
Pynchon takes the bus, and I drive Munchkin. Munchkin and I are both on campus, and Pynchon works in the opposite direction, so this makes sense. We drive, then, 8km per day. We did choose to buy a new car when I was pregnant, the smallest most gas-efficient model we could get, a car we intend to drive for at least ten years. We got a four-door Toyota Echo, and we're averaging about 20,000 km/year. Not bad. We're trying to be a one-car family, and to walk to more places. We're reducing our mileage.

The choice: groceries.
We buy from the local grocery store. We live in an uptown core and we think it's important to shop locally to support the merchants. This is more expensive, and we can't buy in bulk. We do, though, use canvas bags exclusively. And we do try to buy more from the periphery of the store than from the middle--that is, more fresh food and produce, and fewer packaged goods. That reduces our waste. We do buy soda in cans as well as bottles: we bring cans to work (save money) and recycle them there; we drink from bottles at home. We no longer buy bottled water. We bought bottles instead, and refill them at home. We're reducing some packaging, then, and again reducing our mileage.

The choice: housing and heating and cooling.
Our house is about a hundred years old, cheap, in the uptown area, a bit ramshackle. We spent a fortune to insulate it to reduce our heating and cooling costs. We have a mid-efficiency furnace, but it's pretty new and we're not going to replace it. We do have central air, but we try not to use it. Both heating and cooling are managed by a programmable thermostat that we bought and installed: we minimize nighttime and office-hours consumption. Our house is old and leaky and not terribly efficient. But on the upside we live in a neighbourhood where we can walk around, which is well-served by public transit, and which uses existing sewer and utilities infrastructure. So we are reducing the strain on 'green space' I guess. Our house is not big: at about 1800 square feet, it's smaller than average, but it means we try to have less stuff in it, trying to reduce our consumption and collection of the various Things that cost money and take up room.

The failures:
We'd like to feel virtuous, but often don't. I quite often forget my travel coffee mug at home; we buy individually portioned cookie snacks so that we don't overeat; we drive to the gym. We seem to go the mall a lot. And while we usually only put out one half-full black bag of garbage a week, our two quite-large recycling bins are overflowing. Our car is not a hybrid. Our baby wears disposable diapers and is cleaned by disposable wipes. I use a swiffer-style duster, and hate myself. At base, we try to reconcile our comforts with our consciences, and hope, over time, to have conscience win out more often, to have our sense of comfort moderated. We try to reduce--the size and number of our cars, the size of our house and yard, the packaging on the food we buy, the amount of waste we place at the curb--but it hardly seems to really cost us anything. We could do more.

Maybe next year Munchkin and I will join critical mass.

"I'm reducing the bummer-level of this post! Hooray!"

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday night

Yesterday's biting wind and menacing skies gave way to today's blue sunny cheer, a quick change from fall to spring, windows thrown open that were yesterday shut tight against pelting branches and leaves. And so Munchkin too is changeable, a maybe-sick, maybe-teething, whirling dervish of a toddler: full-throated laughter changes to whining, crying breaks off into interested silence, a silly dance ends in a bad fall, a song in howls of pain, and then, again, a break in the clouds and a new word. Shoe! Walk! Home! Chip!

From flirtatious neck tilt and goofy smile to flailing screaming tantrum, and back, in a flash. Our weekend has been like this: the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, wildly oscillating extremes along the continuum of normal.

Pynchon is out tonight, a live martial arts demonstration event, but wishing he were home. I'm cooking, feeling a need to cocoon in my kitchen: broccoli casserole, chili, peanut loaf. Munchkin, suddenly feverish and red-cheeked at bathtime, sleeps fitfully upstairs. Every forty-five minutes or so she lets out an anguished, lone wail, then goes back to sleep.

L's cancer is terminal--he has been told he has one or two years. A cousin of mine died very suddenly and inexplicably this weekend. Her parents are devastated, and I am shocked. She was 44.

I spoon ketchup into a loaf pan, plop mushroom soup concentrate into a casserole. I breathe in the smell of cooking onions and try to feel safe.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Miscellany: Back to school edition

Even though I've been teaching university for almost ten years, and teaching as a professor at this particular university for three years, I always get the back to school jitters: in anticipation of this afternoon's inaugural class, I indulged in three hours of mid-night insomniac pacing around my house, before falling to a shivery and anxious sleep in the guest room at 6 am.

Don't tell anyone the first day still makes me nervous, ok?


From the Chronicle of Higher Education [no link, sorry, subscription only], Tim Gunn opines that academics look like hell deliberately, because they don't care: the 'look' that results, he says, is supposed to indicate that the professor in question would much rather spend an extra 30 seconds reading a book, than dragging a comb through his or her hair. He generalized also that professors wear ill-fitting clothes, generally too big on top, and too small on bottom. Think giant polar fleece zipups, paired with peg leg flood pants.

I regret to say that some people watching from a bench outside the bookstore mostly confirms this assessment.

Me? I wore a seafoam green fitted mock-t with the princessing detail at sleeves and neck, paired with a black/white flecked tulip skirt, knee-high 'dressy' black boots, and a fitted black tuxedo blazer. I like to look like a grownup, at least on the first day.


English students tend to be fashion conscious, so it was nice to sit outside and be reassured that my campus has fashion dorks aplenty, in keeping with its exalted reputation for nerd-dom and intellectual excellence (cf Tim Gunn above). I saw plenty of bad hairdos, pleated shorts, socks-in-birks, and more than enough pairs of Crocs outside of a pool deck.

I shared my bench with two students, huddled over a piece of paper and scribbling furiously against the sun's glare. They were doing math questions, grabbing the pen back and forth in a rush of problem solving. "Don't you see? It has to be zero for it to be a perfect square!!!" I could've flashed my boobs at them and they would not have noticed.

It gladdens the heart, it does.


Chalk. I teach in a room with a thirty foot wall of chalkboards. I filled it up: with extra readings for those who might be interested, with the agenda for next day, with the guiding questions for today. With interesting quotations. Here's one, by Roman Jakobson, a Russian Formalist literary critic:

"[Literariness] is organized violence committed on everyday speech."

I have chalk ground into my hands, which transferred to the bum of my skirt, and inevitably onto my inky black suit jacket. Teaching is messy business.


Number of students who asked me for directions today: 2
Distance, in feet, of querent number two from his sought-after location: 3
Number of students who have already prepared medical documentation for absence: 1
Age, in years, of oldest reference work I cited today: 27
Average number of years by which this book is older than my students: 8
Number of years since I last took a foundation course at the BA level: 12
Total cost, in Canadian dollars, of the textbooks for my course: $83
Average reduction in speed of travel around the campus ring road this week: -15km/h
Number of banners across Small City's main street, welcoming students: 1
Number of police officers stationed under said banner, in front of liquor store: 2


Why are chalkboards so vastly superior to white boards? Well, chalk is plentiful and never dries out or goes missing entirely. Chalk doesn't smell bad either. Also, white text on black board seems to be far more visible than squeaky, streaky blue across glaring white.


Twice this weekend, I marched across the street to the student house directly opposite our house. Twice I asked them to be quiet: Friday night, partyers on the balcony were shouting down to friends in the street; Saturday afternoon, I interrupted the youngish alpha male resident--in a fit of post-party housecleaning--to ask him to turn his stereo down. We could hear it in our house, across the street, with the windows closed. He immediately apologized and turned it down.

Later that day, gazing out the window while making the bed, I noticed him walk gingerly out into traffic in his bare feet, pause at the centre line with his head cocked, and then trot back into his house.

He was checking the volume level.


Last year, I couldn't imagine things being this normal again. And now, it's that experience that seems so hazy and surreal. Huh.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Circle of life

Munchkin chattered "Hi! Hi! Hi!" until L opened the door at his house in far-flung 'burb. She had never been here before, nor seen him for months, and the change from light to dark as we entered, along with the jumpy, yappy lapdog made her clam up and cling to me tightly. L was not concerned--he has three kids of his own. He put the dog outside, and kept his distance from Munchkin until she started to get comfortable. We moved from the living room (too formal, too hot) down into the rec room (cooler and more comfortable) and she had to habituate herself all over again, whimpering and clutching me and a little stuffed dog as she adjusted to the new room. I fed her strawberries. It helped.

L remarked on her hair, probably because for the first twenty minutes all he saw was the back of her head as she pressed into me. He noted how long it is, how it curls up in the back, its fine baby wispiness. "Ah," he said, "I remember another little girl who had hair just like that."

He meant me: L used to babysit me when I was a little older than Munchkin. He was in high school, dating J, the eldest daughter of my godmother, who lived two doors down from my house in Northern Town.

I was a little surprised by the comparison, because Munchkin looks so very very much like Pynchon, but L assured me that he could see me in her. And he is, obviously, a credible witness. I was surprisingly moved by his observation and by his defense of his authority in making it. There aren't a lot of people around here who have known me from infancy, and who can speak knowinlgy, even tenderly of my baby hair. Munchkin ate strawberries and practiced saying L's name, bringing herself soon enough to smile and wave at him, to show off. He's good with kids; he had the same effect on me.

J came home--the highschool sweethearts have married--and Munchkin withdrew again, taking another little bit of time to habituate herself to one more person. Feeling that J might be hurt, I told them Munchkin is generally not comfortable with new situations, or loud noises, or abrupt changes in lighting. That she's a verbal, gregarious child who just needs a bit of time to get her game face on.

J laughed, and shook her head at me. "Gee," she said, laughing at me, "I don't know any other kids who were like that." Yes: me, of course. You may know me as the ENTJ, sheep-herder of personality types, assertive and confident, cracking jokes and giving lectures. But of course, J and L know better, they remember me as a shy, sensitive child, afraid of all the other kids and happier in quiet play alone, or in the company of adults. Terrified of new places, new experiences that I couldn't control or predict. Kinda like Munchkin.

J and L are thirteen years older to me: as a child I looked up to them as the coolest teenagers I knew, she with her bright lipstick and feathered hair, and he with his bellbottoms and easy laugh. I idolized them. Always physically affectionate, I nearly smothered them with hugs, desperate for them to know my love. Kinda like Munchkin.

It was awful when they went away to university, but how wonderful when they came back to get married, and I got to be a flower girl! When they moved back to town, I was ecstatic. They had their first child, a daughter, when I was eleven. Of course, we all remarked on how wonderful it was that now I could babysit for them! And it was. I remember feeling so grown up as I moved from cared-for to caregiver. Now we joke that this daughter, JZ, twenty-three and a student at the university I teach at, should be babysitting Munchkin. JZ always looked up to me like I looked up to her parents, and now she likes to regale me with stories about how she so vividly remembers this and that that I would do or say or wear that has stuck with her.

Anyhow, L and J started dating when they were both 15, which is about the time they started babysitting me, taking me to the movies, to the cottage, out for ice cream, or into the backyard. They've been married 27 years, now, just as much in love as ever, interacting just how I remember them.

We were visiting because L has suddenly and shockingly been diagnosed with a very serious cancer, in the form of a large tumour on his spine. From doctor visit to biopsy to diagnosis to treatment in the course of a little more than a week, L is now in an intense routine of chemotherapy without a real sense of what comes next, what his prognosis is. J sends out the email reports, making small jokes, and calling on all of us to laugh along with them. Again, I was struck by cancer's unfairness, and the sudden shock of real danger to a loved one. Remembering how important a part of my life J and L have been. Are. How I want Munchkin to know them, to have JZ watch her, the way I watched JZ, and JZ's parents watched me. I want that continuity.

When J and L saw me in Munchkin, they not only reinforced the ties that bind them to my life. They also helped me see my daughter anew, to consider that some of her behaviours used to me mine, to see our kindship. To realize that confident me used to be a shy baby too, and that's nothing to apologize for. Sometimes the obvious stuff isn't so obvious in the intense intimacy of family life.

So we visit, and we laugh, and my past confronts our collective present as we hold our breaths, waiting for news of L's future. Bittersweet. And next time we visit, once she warms up, Munchkin will, I hope, say their names as clearly to them as she does to me. We've been practicing.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Munchkin learns to walk

Well, she did it. She learned how to walk. Just shy of fifteen months old, but boy does she find it funny. Pynchon and I have spent much of the weekend ping-ponging her back and forth between us, increasing the distance from a few steps ... to a few more steps.

She's lurching like a drunken sailor (and laying sloppy kisses on the camera lens, too), but we couldn't be prouder. And we probably couldn't laugh much more.


You know, right, that she was a total whining, wretched, face-slapping, daddy-hating, mommy-clinging, nap-striking, tantrum pitching ... toddler today right? To make up for the glorious two days previous?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Update from the barnyard: a weekend report

It's the end of the summer. We're trying to have one more summer weekend before school is back in session and Pynchon 's busy season gears up. We've got one day left of our long weekend, but I can tell you that, so far, it's really been a highlight of the whole summer for me.

I wondered last week why Munchkin needed to know the various noises made by sundry barnyard animals: how could I have been so daft as to forget there's a 'farm' in the local giant park? Seriously. There's goats and chickens and pigs and peacocks and llamas and a tortoise and bunnies and deer and a mule. Additionally, train tracks run through the park, and a tourist-service local passenger railway runs through every hour or so. It's baby heaven:

Look! It's a goat! And that red blur is the train. We were bleating and tooting like crazy there for a couple of minutes.

Munchkin and I were on a mother-daughter expedition, leaving Pynchon at home to do the vacuuming and listen to loud rap music. I like getting some time by myself with Ms. Munchkin: our time during the week feels very rushed, and weekends allow me the leisure to just go with her flow, to get to know her again. It's kind of amazing to me how much she changes from Saturday to Saturday, and how it happens when I'm not looking: in the rush of morning, trying to get to work; in the rush of evening, making sure she's fed, cleaned, and put to bed on time; in the hours of daycare, when I can't see her at all. This weekend I learned that she can tweet like a bird; she can walk; she looks around for her audience before pitching a fit; she smiles for the camera, on cue; she shakes her head no, or yes. New.

She has a new game: she has discovered that our kitchen linoleum is slippery, and that if she lies on her belly, she can propel herself backwards at a pretty good clip, using her hands. To wit:

She's just crashed into the heating grate, and is gearing up for a second go at it. I'm laughing a lot lately. She's just so fun.


So I got up with her at 6 on Saturday morning, letting Pynchon sleep in. We all went out for brunch together later, but I brought her to the park to play, and say 'hi' to the animals. She mutters to herself in the solitude of the carriage, and I delight in her unselfconsciousness, her simple pleasure of making noise, of waving at people, of pointing at squirrels.

Here's something good to know: babies who crawl probably shouldn't wear white socks in their maryjanes through the morning dew:

Can you see the outline of her shoes? Please note her funny crawl technique: right foot flat on ground; pull forward; drag left foot underneath bum; sit on bum; repeat. That's why the left sock is so much filthier than the right.

We are so lucky to live where we do: we walked to the park with the zoo and the train. It also has a lake and a boarwalk, with benches and a gazebo, beautiful shaded picnic areas, and sportsfields. Across the lake, we look through the windows of a beautifully designed research institution that holds public lectures and concerts. We exit the park, onto the edge of uptown, where we buy new socks (natch) and head to Starbucks, where Munchkin eats and outrageously priced fruit salad and poses for the camera.

I can't help but laugh when I look at this. She's looking less like a generic baby, all button nose and big blue eyes and stunned vacant look. This is a face she makes deliberately when the camera comes out; it is her own unique arrangement of her features for the delight of others, her own self-presentation to the world. Goofy and beautiful. Heartbreaking.

It's all happening so fast, this coming to self-hood, growing out of all her summer clothes, making up games on the kitchen floor. Today I cut her bangs: she could hardly see. Running my hands through her hair, I idly made little ponytails, and was shocked to discover how much hair she actually has. Then:

Can you see her little ponytails? We have matching mother-daughter hairdos. I've spent the rest of the day staring at her, crawling around, standing, staggering, with this big-girl hairdo, little face open to the world, exploring. Watching her sit in the grocery cart like a big girl, lobbing food-stuffs into the back of the cart when they are handed to her. She knows what to do.

I like the weekends. I get caught up. I like this post: it's disjointed and full of images. Like my weekend. Random bits of happiness and a little bit of wonder.