Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dash? Or Slash?

This morning, before breakfast, Munchkin demanded I place her snowsuit on the kitchen floor for her. I did. With twenty minutes of effort, she managed to get most of the way into it. Sitting here on the floor, wrestling with her mittens, she called out to me: "Outside! Tape! Boots! Out ... SIIIIIIDE!" Calculating groggily, I figured she hadn't left the house since Friday.

Then, we ran out of milk and bread and bananas and Christmas oranges.

To solve problem number two, we did a family after-nap grocery shopping expedition. To solve problem number one, I proposed that I would walk Munchkin home from the store, in her stroller, stopping for a snack and some fun at Starbucks on the way. It's that part of the story I want to write about, and where I get stuck.

Is it a mother-daughter adventure? Or a mother / daughter adventure? Dash? Or Slash?

I'm intrigued by the semantics of the syntax: it seems to me the hyphen connotes something different than the slash. For me, "mother-daugther" is a conjunction, a two-become-one, a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts proposition. "Mother / daughter" is a tension, an uneasy balance, a teeter-totter of managed expectation. Many of the activities we undertake together could go one way or the other: errands in the car, usually mother / daughter; brunch at the local diner, often mother / daughter; trips to grammas, always mother-daughter.

We buy our week's worth of food, and we wave Pynchon away and set off into the wind. "In, in, in!" yells Munchkin as the iconic sign comes into view over the sidewalk horizon. I park her stroller in a corner and drape our coats and hats and mitts on it, as she lines up her Little People--"Hippo! Tiger! Boy!"--on a hard wooden chair. We order, and settle in, and I drink my "yatteeee" and she sips her cup of ice water and munches on goldfish crackers and grapes. She dances in her chair, and I dance too. She flirts with nearby people and I try to teach her to be friendly but polite. She points out objects and names colours and counts crackers and I praise her and reinforce her. She shares crackers with her little people and asks me to help her put her shoe back on.

Today she was pretty crabby: stormy ups and downs and cuddles and tantrums and frustration and boredom and overexcitement and tiredness and clinginess and fierce independence. I was, by midafternoon, losing patience and running out of ideas. Our trip out for coffee and crackers cheered us both up immeasurably: we became again the charming and kind versions of ourselves.

"All done!" she hollers, brushing her fingertips together vehemently. "All done!" And so we pack up for home, putting the high chair back into place, collecting the fallen goldfish and removing them to the garbage. We walk the final four blocks home, and I sing "Jingle Bells" to her and she fills in all the words that occur to her, cheering a loud "Yay!" when I finish.

Today, for this outing, I'm leaning toward mother-daughter.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Goodies

Your comments continue to buoy me. Thanks. But herewith some random holiday fun!


My in-laws are here for six days, for Christmas. I made up a chart, of every meal for all six days. Then I made a grocery list, and collected all the recipes together. I taped the meal chart to the inside of one of my kitchen cupboards, for easy reference.

I think I've spent more time cooking this week than I have for months. My family eats every thing I put in front of them, pushes away their plates leaning back in their chairs. Full. Grateful. I love it, the warmth of the kitchen, the feeling of being in my home and useful and organized. I love that my inlaws keep talking about how lazy they're getting, about how little they're doing. About how full they are.


I bought a Jones New York cashmere blend red car coat two winters ago. Last winter, I brought it in to the tailor to have every single button resewn.

Have you noticed that new clothes seem more and more to come bundled with extra buttons, and mending yarn, and other assorted doodads meant to assist reconstruction? Have you noticed, also, that you often have occasion to use them?

How is it thoughtful or classy to basically sew crappy seams and half-assed buttons, and then provide replacements you're pretty sure are going to be well-used?

Pynchon bought me beautiful, soft, man-style pink flannel pjyamas. I have put the extra buttons in my jewelry box, where they join quite a collection.


Pynchon and I found ourselves frantically at work, at 11:00 pm Christmas Eve. He was sitting at the breakfast bar, gleefully tucking sockettes and mandarin oranges into an old pair or work socks, making 'stockings' for his parents to discover in the morning. He was trying to fasten sticky name labels to the fuzzy socks. I had my hands dunked into a bowl of cold water, delicately separating pomegranate seeds from pith, for a fruit salad for Christmas brunch. At the same time, I was cutting cubes of butter into the biscuit batter, and soaking dried mushrooms in boiling water for the fritatta.

"Hey!" I said, to him, bleary-eyed but happy, "We're in charge of Christmas now!"

Diana Krall sang carols on the kitchen stereo and as our fingers fumbled at our tasks, we thought about what it meant to make a holiday for both our child and our parents. It was nice. I feel like a grownup.


Brunch looked so good, and took so long! that I had to take a picture of it:


I was feeding Munckin a bottle in the dim of her room at naptime. She wrapped her little hand around one of my fingers and gurgled. Then:

"Ho-ho-ho ... hee-hee ... ho-ho-ho."






"Jing-bo-bells. Jingo-bells. Jing-bo-bells ... ... ... HEY!"


"All done. Bed! Biiiiiig stretch."


Munchkin adores her paternal grandparents just as much as her maternal ones. She took to them immediately, and the only way we can keep her from whining for daycare in the mornings is to remind her that Gramma and Grampy will soon be up. She sits on Grampy's ample lap and he points out pictures to her in the paper. Gramma shows her pictures of Pynchon as a boy, narrating a family history. Munchkin is rapt. It's been days since we've had a tantrum. She sleeps like a champ and is eating like a horse. Extended-family life suits her, and I'm amazed how much my heart swells to watch her with them, these old, unhip, slow-moving, part deaf, nap-taking grandparents. How kind they are to each other! How much joy each generation gives to the other, and how much raw pleasure they take in each other's company!


You are all right, of course: home is where my family is, and my memories live in my heart. This week my house and my heart are both full. The fire has been lit in the evenings and for Christmas morning. The ceiling fan in the kitchen disperses the awesome heat of my perpetual cooking, wafts the soft smell of rosemary biscuits, of sage and mushrooms, through the house. Ernie and Elmo rest in their little boats, with rubber duckie, in the basket I've installed for them next to the tub. My father in law naps in the guest room, two doors away from Munchkin, who naps soundly in her crib. My mother-in-law reclines with her lists and her papers on the living room couch, and Pynchon checks his email in the office. I sit in the basement, watching Christmas movies and wrapping presents, sipping my grande-nonfat-latte from a Christmas travel mug.

Everywhere I look I see people I love, things I have chosen, comforts we can share. We built this home, this family, Pynchon and I. It's part bricks, but it's mostly love. And a lot of paint from Debbie Travis and furniture from IKEA. But a lot of love, still.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lump of coal

Well, the seesaw is just as nauseating as ever.

In the hopes that bad news spread is bad new diffused, and hoping that just telling you will somehow make me feel better enough to stop crying, let me just say:

They made a ridiculously low offer, and we made a high counter offer. We gave them until January 2 to respond, because we wanted to have the holidays in peace.

They rushed over today to tell us they bought the house next door, and have decided to build around us.

Merry Christmas, and fuck you, essentially.

And I drove home from the grocery store, $200 worth of holiday food and hospitality weighing down the trunk, as the tears fogged my eyes and the great wordless, noiseless sob rang in my ears and pulled at my face.

Pynchon says it's just a tactic, meant to terrify and cow us. Maybe. But how am I supposed to sleep at night? How am I supposed to get through these next ten days, days that, for months, I have been filling with happy hopes of family and snow and evenings by the fire and warm family suppers? When all I want to do is vomit? And I'm so scared I couldn't even bear to go to daycare tonight to pick up my daughter?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

An update on the house situation

First of all, thank you to all of the commenters yesterday: I put out a call for help and you responded in droves. It meant a lot to me, and it really helped firm my resolve to know that other people didn't find our distress unreasonable, our demands outlandish. I managed to only have a wee little cry today, and got a lot of strength from your support.

Second, we got an offer from them. What they did was pull together a list of ten 'comparable properties' roughly in this area that sold over the last year, and then circle the highest-priced one, directly across the street from us, and offer us at that much money. Yeahhhh, I went to their open house when it was on the market? And it's nice, but our house is bigger, better equipped, on a larger lot, has a garage ... When our real estate agent looked at the list, he actually laughed out loud: the list was cherry-picked for only the very cheapest properties, not actually taking into account, um, the actual houses being sold as actually compared to our location and amenities. Our lawyer also kind of chuckled, and suggested we firmly reject, changing all their ridiculous terms ($500 deposit, two months to just drop the offer completely, with no penalty, closing date six months away, ludicrous low price, etc, etc, etc.) to ones we feel are more reasonable and then dropping it all back in their laps for them to ponder over the holidays.

Third, our real estate agent seems to be warming to our cause. He's had a look at the aerial survey of the block in question, and it seems our property is so located as to quite likely make it impossible for them to even build a chicken coop without buying us out. Basically, they have an awkward, wedge-shaped property and to all intents and purposes, we totally cut off a good chunk of it. Pynchon and our agent are going to the City planning department tomorrow to investigate setback and parking bylaws. We begin to suspect that the reason these people haven't filed any formal development plans with the City is that they don't want us to be able to find out they can't do it without us. We imagine that this is how they intend to drive down our price. Our agent also loved Pynchon's idea of telling the condo developers that if they don't meet our price, we will simply move anyway, but keep our current house, converting it to a student rental to subsidize our new home. He thought that was a great card to play.

And so it dawns on us, slowly and magnificently, that we might be in the best position of all: we ask for the compensation we need to stay in the neighbourhood in a comparable house, and if they meet our price, then we happily move; if they don't meet our price, they can't actually develop the property, and we continue on here in our home as though nothing at all was ever amiss, building our equity month by month, paying down our debts, growing our salaries, watching Munchkin move from the toddler room, to the pre-school room, and finally out of that pricey pricey daycare. We would, that is, actually have a choice, actually be able to sell or to stay, on our terms and in our timeline and at our budget.

None of this is certain. But Pynchon says today, when he received their offer and told them our lawyer and agent would look it over and we would get back to them in due time, they looked ... a little nervous. We need to go to the City again, to try to find out how much they actually need our property. We're really not sure. But we feel a lot more confident today than yesterday, and it seems like our lawyer and our agent think we might come out of this better than we might have expected before.

Keep us in your thoughts, would you?

I promise, as soon as all this nonsense starts to settle one way or another, and as soon as I can relax enough to get my grading done, I will lavish all my attention on my neglected Bloglines: it's not you. It's totally, totally me. Sorry to have been so lax. I'll be back soon.

But for now:

I'm a 'Krimpas' elf! Cheer up!

Monday, December 17, 2007

A very Dickens Christmas

... with the part of Bob Cratchit shared between Pynchon and I.  If Munchkin were smaller, she could be Tiny Tim.

The thing is, Christmas is coming up fast and we're facing penury and the dashing of our dreams. This past week in particular, I'm clocking more time crying than I am actually doing any of the grading that stands between me and my much-needed break; I'm spending nearly as much time desperately crunching numbers in spreadsheets, calculating loans and trying to find some path that leads from the terrifying now to a calmer future.

The furniture store that owns the property directly behind and to one side of us wants to build a 14 storey condo building where currently a one-floor office space and a small delivery area sit.  They want to build the condo right behind our house; the delivery area will serve as the main access point into this 'luxury development'.  We live on a busy-ish street, sure, but this 'neighbour' is a 9-to-5, very quiet and low-key operation.  A 14 storey luxury condo tower peering perpetually down into our yard and our home is a very different proposition.

They want to buy our house.  After a few weeks of heartbreak and mourning--our finished basement and fireplace!  Our garage!  All the renovations and hard work we've put in!  Our daughter was conceived here!  This is our family home!--we decided that, obviously, we couldn't stay.

The worse news?  They seem determined to get a 'bargain' on our house, to extort the lowest possible settlement.  Vague terms, lowball offers, snippy remarks about how we live on a busy street and can't expect them to pay what it would actually cost us to replace our home with a comparable one a couple of streets over.  They claim urgency, then they stall.  They tell us they'll buy us a replacement home, and then cry poor when our agent finds a home with near-identical specifications just around the corner.  They cajole us with their concern for our quality of living, and then they threaten us with plummeting property values.  They tell us they want our property.  Then, worst of all, they threaten to just build around us and let us rot.

We've only been here 2 years.  We have barely any equity; if this development drops our property value, we will actually have negative equity in our home.  The neighbourhood has rapidly gentrified since we've moved in:  mall redevelopment, another condo loft conversion, new office spaces, slew of upscale retailers, a flagship LCBO, and a Starbucks.  We're on the main bus line and so get by with our one car.  It's a fantastic location, and we were so lucky to get so much house, in such a location, for the price we did at the time we looked.  We are so happy here; we don't want to leave the neighbourhood.  But unless we actually get a real deal from these people, I don't know what we're going to do.  We just can't afford to add any more to our monthly mortgage payments:  we pay a full second mortgage payment for daycare, and our plan was to stay here at least 7-10 years, at least until daycare and the car and the student loans were paid off, at least until we were settled in our jobs.  And Pynchon is trying so hard to leave his toxic, toxic, but well-remunerated soul-killer of a job, so our income will soon be cut.  We're poor because we're doing what needs doing for our family--but all of this was easily enough doable here, in our home, on our busy street, bought at a terrific deal and with a great mortgage.  And now we're going to lose our home, or all of its value, or our position in the neighbourhood of my dreams, or a good number of features and square feet, because ... because Scrooge wants to maximize profits from a luxury development that leaves no room for us.

I bite my tongue to keep from asking them, "You want to build a 14 storey luxury condominium and you can't fairly compensate a new family that didn't want to move, that can't afford to upgrade, that tried to invest in a home for now and for the future?"  They ring our doorbell and enthuse about what a wonderful project they've concocted and how excited they are, while I can hardly stomach the idea of Christmas shopping and feel a shudder of dread when I try to imagine a future beyond the next couple of months.

They talk about fair market value, but I wonder:  how is it fair when every real estate agent in town knows about this proposed development and our house might as well be contaminated by radiation for all its desirability to the 'market'?  How is it a market when there's only one buyer who would ever even consider purchasing this property now, from a seller who never wanted to put it up for sale? How is it fair when they have urban planners and development lawyers and multiple real estate agents and a home they can snuggle into a night to dream of profits future, while we have an emotional attachment to our home, the feeling of the world being pulled out from under us, and a lawyer we can afford to consult in 15 minute increments?  God, if it were a couple of years from now, once I've got tenure, once Munchkin is out of full day care, once the five-year loan on the car is paid off, we could take whatever they might offer us, and leverage our way into wherever we liked.  But not now.  We just can't.  We're cornered.

Their L-shaped property wraps around three houses.  They've already bought the other two:  the first was a flip-gone-wrong I'm sure they got for pennies; the second was Bill and Helen, those wonderful neighbours who shoveled our walk when Munchkin was a squalling and demanding Miss Baby, terrified retirees on a fixed income, nothing but their house as an asset, Bill and Helen who told us they're just too old and scared to fight.  Now it's just us.

I'm very scared.  I'm very angry.  Every night, I'm up for hours, roaming the dark and fearing the future.  Every day, my thoughts race away from me and my work goes untouched.  I'm having trouble eating, but find drinking a little too comforting.  I worry.  I cry a lot, and fume a lot, and write itemized lists of grievances just to stop them from swirling in my head.  Pynchon holds me and comforts me as best he can.  He wishes he could make me feel better.  I try not to cry in front of Munchkin, but when we pull into the driveway after daycare, and she shouts out 'Home,' my heart breaks again.

My home ... my home.  When I get stressed or scared, I retreat to here, I wash dishes, I dust, I hang pictures, I paint.  But now, everywhere I look I see futility and fear:  I don't feel safe here.  The house will be knocked down--it's too much, really--for surface parking, a guest lot.  I've seen the site plans.  All our love and all our work and all our payments reduced to rubble.  We've been working so hard to build our future here, and when I look around all I see is a past, a past I hoped I could keep around me for years, a sense memory of newlyweds and pregnant ice-cream binges and our first cordless drill and Munchkin's first ... day, tooth, smiles, steps.

We need to sell to them by tomorrow, they say, or they're writing us out of their plans.  Merry Christmas.  Hallelujah, holy shit, pass the Tylenol.

What can you say, bloggy friends?  Do you have any comfort to offer?  Any advice?  I've been needing for weeks to write this out but it's hard.  I'm struggling so much with this; I'm falling apart.  Poor Pynchon is trying to hold me together, but I think it's just too much for one person.  Maybe it will be okay.  But real estate to me is a matter of commitment, of heart and soul, and I haven't the stomach for this kind of ruthless greed, this rapacious bargaining.  Not at home.  I just can't imagine.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Braggy McBragsalot

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about that last post. Because of the bragging: my baby is so smart! Here's a list of amazing things she can do! She's a baby genius! I'm a Canadian; I don't feel comfortable bragging, at least not about myself. I'm also pretty stridently against becoming a competimommy, and, in some ways, isn't a recital of my own baby's accomplishments a tune harmonized against the example of, well, your babies?. However, I am a mommy, and all mommies (those of my acquaintance, without exception ...) are amazed by their children, rightly proud to watch them grow from pooping lumps to functioning human beings.


One of my earliest memories--I know it was before I started junior kindergarden, because I was home with my mother during the day--has to do with bragging. I was sitting in the big bay window in our living room, the window that looked out over the street. I was tucked into a corner, behind the curtain, breathing on the glass and tracing patterns in the resulting frost with my finger. Daydreaming. My mom was on the phone and I was listening to her talk: "She's just so smart. You wouldn't believe it ... yesterday she was looking up at the sky and telling me about all that she could see in the clouds, and she was making up stories and characters. Her language is very advanced. She's going to just do so well in school. I've been doing some testing with her, and she's just so advanced."

That's when I knew I was going to be a professor, when I knew that my future was words. When smart became my identity.

Like the typical first born, I was a rule-follower, a parent-pleaser. Smart was what I was, and I was going to exploit that to win approval. I did. As time passed, my smarts were an expectation: if my sister pulled B's, she was feted. If I got A's, it was wondered why I didn't do better. "But you're so smart," my mom would say, when I complained about this double-standard. No sense inflating my ego when being clever wasn't something I could really help. Actually, I did get an awful lot of compliments and positive reinforcement for my long, full blonde hair, something I had just as much control over as my intelligence. But I guess it's okay to brag about fluffy hair. In any case, the 70s and early 80s were not the self-esteem years of parenting practice. We were made of more stoic stuff.

My own smarts I experienced as a joy and a limitation: everyone expected a lot from me, but I didn't seem to get a lot of praise, praise I really really craved. My intellect was nurtured and challenged but I sometimes felt the whole person maybe got lost a little in the role of 'the smart one.' Yet I have always held that first remembered moment tight to me: I was special.

Munchkin sang to Mom on the phone the other night, and I heard that 30-some year old conversation again: "You know, I tested your IQ when you were 3, and you scored 152! I bet Munchkin is going to do at least as well! She's just so clever, it's a joy to watch her grow. Listen to her make phrases! She just picks it up so easily!" I never really heard that tone of pure joy, or wonder, in my mom's voice in the interim between my infancy and Munchkin's.

But? Honestly? IQ tests on 3 year olds?

And so, as I write about Munchkin's developing language skills, her zeal for books and her love of rhyming songs and nursery rhymes, I replay my own past in a new role. And I'm not sure what to do.

On the one hand, I feel honestly uncomfortable when, at daycare, the teachers marvel at her expressive and receptive language, at her capacity to be deliberately funny, at her developing logic and reasoning skills. "She's just so advanced--gosh, do you think her mom is an English professor or something?" they crow. "We'll tell you that, but we wouldn't tell the other moms." I don't want a snotty, superior kid on my hands. Also, I know that it ain't always such a blessing to be the darling of the teacher's lounge. On the other hand, why is it more okay to brag about someone's athletic ability (or long blonde hair) than about their brains? If my kid has a gift for, say, language (probably not unreasonable, considering the four combined English degrees that contributed her genetic material), can't I support her gifts with visible pride in them?

If I do want to celebrate Munchkin's smarts, how do I do that without implying everyone else is, um, not so smart? How can pride and celebration of this sort be uncompetitive? We are not flash-card people, and I'm sure as hell not adminstering developmental tests. Honestly, we feed her and play with her and bath her and read to her and she grows into who she is. But am I not stacking her up against the other kids in her class when I assess her gifts?

My toddler ain't perfect. She was a late walker, late sitter, a terribly crabby and clingy infant. Now she bites things and seems to be developing a pretty strong anger reflex. But she's smart. I just don't know how to say that, to her or to others, in a way that I'm comfortable with.

Maybe we can file this all under the 'making problems out of nothing' file, and have a good laugh later: you know, like worrying about whether to co-sleep or not to co-sleep was going to make all the difference between raising a psychopath and raising a Nobel-prize winner. Ha. Worrying, though, is something I'm good at, and you guys are a really thoughtful bunch of people to pose this question to.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whuds, whuds, whuds

In the morning, Pynchon retrieves Munchkin from her sodden and pee-peed bedding, strips off the wet pyjamas, and wrangles her into a new diaper and the navy blue Roots tracksuit we've come to call her 'morning outfit.' I slowly come to consciousness from my soft, downy nest across the hall and listen to them chat to each other. The next part is the very best: Pynchon brings her into our room, and she shouts "Wake up! Wake up!" and "Mommy! Mommy!" as all 30-some pounds of her drop onto my chest, a big warm toddler snuggle.

We like to roll around in bed all together these mornings. She snuggles her teddy bear and her doudou, and, if we're lucky, her parents. Recently, she has demanded to hold and admire the book I'm reading: The Lynne Truss Treasury is an 800 page monster, three novels and a slew of newspaper columns collected into one very heavy book. There is very little decoration on the cover. It's just a white paperback, with the title in plain text (albeit red foil plain text), and the tiniest, most abstract little doodle of a cat at the bottom. Well, this cat is the apple of Munchkin's eye. "Cat! Cat! Cat! Meow! Hug!" She hugs the book. She wants to look at the illustration on the front and then on the (quite substantial) spine. She hefts that book around on the bed like it was nothing. She has started to riffle through the pages, assuming, in her toddler ego-centrism, that all books are her books. She is puzzled by the utter lack of illustrations, if thrilled by the wind created as she pulls all the pages across her thumb and they whirr in the air.

"Munchkin," I tell her, "There's just words. It's Mama's book. Just words, words, words. Look at the cat on the front!"

Every morning she opens the book, thumbs the pages. "Wuhds, wuhds, wuhds," she repeats sagely, to herself. "Whuds, whuds, whuds," and then, more cheerfully, "Meow!"

Her capacity to learn wuhds-wuhds-wuhds has just exploded again, and Way the Hell Up North, retired elementary and special-needs teacher Gramma maxed out Munchkin's learning curve, with nursery rhymes they chime out in turns.

London Bridge is falling? DOWN!
Falling? DOWN!
Falling? DOWN!
London Bridge is falling? DOWN!
My fair? LADY!

She knows the second verse, too. And all the end-rhymes on Wee Willy Winky and Rub-a-dub-dub.

At home, she has started to answer some questions with more than a simple yes or no or grunt. Who did you play with at daycare, Munchkin? Nathan! What did you have for lunch? Cheese! Would you like to play or go in the tub? Tub! What song would you like me to sing? Roo-lf! [Rudolph!]

Tonight, it transpires that she can chime out all the line-ends and half-lines from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. She chimes in with Reindeer! Nose! Saw it! Glows! Reindeer! Names! Rudolph! Games! Eve! Say! Bright! [To]night! Him! Glee! Reindeer! [His]story! It seems to me like an awful lot of words for an eighteen-month old to sing out in the right order and at the right time--her little leaps and changes, though, always astonish me.

She now knows, in fact, so many words that her father and I no longer understand what she's saying half the time. When her lexicon was more limited, we learned some of her quirkier pronunciations ("Abba!" for a while meant "On your bum!", "Tee-poo" means toothpaste and "Hanto" means elephant). But now she makes conversation in a language foreign to us, but obviously meaningful to her. And suddenly, three days later, we get it.

Wuhds, wuhds, wuhds. I really love this stage. I can teach her language; I can enunciate, I can make rhymes and listen to her, and explain things, and let her explain things to me. What a wonderful time this is turning out to be!

"Cheers, Gramma!" Woe betide you if, returned home, you mistake "Cheers!" for "Cheese!" because, believe me, cheese isn't a word to be deployed lightly around here. That took a couple of days ...