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Swing Low

Swing Low

A Life
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"Nothing accomplished."

I don’t know what my father meant when he said it. I had asked him, the day before he took his own life, what he was thinking about, and that was his reply. Two hopeless words, spoken in a whisper by a man who felt he had failed on every level. This book is my attempt to prove my father wrong.

At the age of seventeen, he was diagnosed as suffering from the mental illness known then as manic depression and today as bipolar disorder. His method of self-defence, along with the large amounts of medication he was prescribed, was silence. And maybe, for him, it worked. He managed, against the advice of his psychiatrist, to get married, to rear a family, and to teach elementary school for more than forty years. His psychiatrist warned him, way back in the early 1950s, that the odds of living a normal life were heavily stacked against him. In fact, Dad’s life fell into the typical pattern of our small town of Steinbach, Manitoba: an ordered existence of work, church, and family, with the occasional inevitable upsets along the way. His managing to live an ordinary life was an extraordinary accomplishment. It is a measure of his strength, his high (some would say impossibly high) personal standards, and his extreme self-discipline that he managed to stay sane, organized, and ordinary for so long.

A year or so after his retirement, my parents went out for a drive in the countryside around town. “Well,” said my father after they’d driven in silence for a while, “I did it.” “You’ve done many things, Mel,” said my mom. “What are you referring to?” “I did what they said I would never do,” answered my father.

And he did it exceptionally well. He became a much-loved and respected teacher, known especially for his kindness, exuberance, and booming voice, and at home my mother and my sister and I had everything we could possibly want or need. There was only one thing we missed, and that was hearing him speak. I have often wondered what he would have said about himself, if he had spoken. He never talked about his past, even his childhood, and often he simply didn’t speak at all. His whole world, it seemed, was in the classroom. And when there, he gave it his all. My sister and I, both students of his at one time, used to sit in class in absolute awe. Was this funny, energetic, outspoken man really our father? It must have been teaching, the daily ritual of stepping outside himself and into a vital role, that sustained him all those years.

Had we known then what we know now, we would have understood that the end of his teaching career would, essentially, mean the end of Mel. After his suicide, we were left with many questions. How could this have happened? we asked ourselves over and over. After all, other people have difficulty retiring, but they don’t necessarily kill themselves. I became obsessed with knowing all that I could about his life, searching, I suppose, for clues that would ultimately lead me to the cause of his death. With the help of my mother and my sister and Dad’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, I’ve managed to put a few pieces of the puzzle of his life together. But in spite of many theories and much speculation, there’s really only one answer, and that is depression. A clinical, profoundly inadequate word for deep despair.

At the end of his life, my father, in a rare conversation, asked me to write things down for him, words and sentences that would lead him out of his confusion and sadness to a place and time that he might understand. “You will be well again,” I wrote. “Please write that again,” he’d ask. I wrote many things over and over and over, and he would read each sentence, each declaration and piece of information out loud. Eventually, it stopped making sense to him. “You will be well again?” he’d ask me, and I’d say, “No, Dad, you will be well again.” “I will be well again?” he’d ask. “Yes,” I’d say. “I will be well again,” he’d repeat. “Please write that down.”

Soon I was filling up pages of yellow legal notepads with writing from his own point of view so he could understand it when he read it to himself. After his death, when I began writing this book, I continued to write in the same way. It was a natural extension of the writing I’d done for him in the hospital, and a way, though not a perfect one, of hearing what my father might have talked about if he’d ever allowed himself to. If he’d ever thought it would matter to anybody.

After his death, I read everything I could find on mental illness and suicide, poring over facts and statistics, survivors’ accounts, reasons, clues, anything at all that might help me to understand, or if not to understand then at least to accept, my father’s decision and to live with it. By dragging some of the awful details into the light of day, they became much less frightening. I have to admit, my father didn’t feel the same way, but he found a way to alleviate his pain, and so have I.

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The Flying Troutmans


yeah, so things have fallen apart. A few weeks ago I got a collect call from my niece, Thebes, in the middle of the night, asking me to please come back to help with Min. She told me she’d been trying to take care of things but it wasn’t working any more. Min was stranded in her bed, hooked on blue torpedoes and convinced that a million silver cars were closing in on her (I didn’t know what Thebes meant either), Logan was in trouble at school, something about the disturbing stories he was writing, Thebes was pretending to be Min on the phone with his principal, the house was crumbling around them, the back screen door had blown off in the wind, a family of aggressive mice was living behind the piano, the neighbours were pissed off because of hatchets being thrown into their yard at all hours (again, confusing, something to do with Logan) . . . basically, things were out of control. And Thebes is only ­eleven.

I told her I’d be there as soon as I could. I had no choice. There was no question. Our parents are dead. Min didn’t have anybody else. And in just about every meaningful way, neither did I. Admittedly, I would have preferred to keep roaming around Paris pretending to be an artist with my moody, ­adjective-­hating boyfriend, Marc, but he was heading off to an ashram in India anyway and said we could communicate telepathically. I tried it a couple of days before he left. I love you, don’t go, I said silently, without moving my lips. He was standing next to me, trying to photograph a gargoyle. You’re a little in my way, he said. Can you move? No amount of telepathy worked with him, but maybe you have to be thousands of miles away from someone in order for your thoughts to work up the speed and velocity required to hit their ­target.

At the airport, Thebes came running over to me dressed entirely in royal blue terry cloth, short shorts and cropped top, and covered in some kind of candy necklace powder. The empty elastic was still around her throat. Or maybe she wore that thing all the time. She had fake tattoos all over her arms and her hair was intense purple, matted and wild, and she melted into me when I put my arms around her and tried to lift her off the ­ground.

Hey, you crazy kid, I said. How are you? She couldn’t talk because she was crying too hard. How are you, Thebie? I asked again. How are things? I didn’t have to ask her. I had a pretty good idea. I let her wrap herself around me and then I carried her over to a plastic airport chair, sat down with her sprawled in my lap, all arms and legs, like a baby giraffe, and let her cry.

How’s the songwriting going? I finally whispered in her ear. I really liked that line . . . take a verse, Mojo . . . you know? I said. She was always ­e-­mailing me her lyrics and cc’ing David Geffen on ­them.

She frowned. She wiped the snot off her face with the back of her hand, then onto her shorts. I’m more into martial arts now, and ­yo-­yoing, she said. I need to get out of my ­head.

Yeah, I said. Using your kung fu powers for ­good?

Well, she said, I feel good when I flip ­people.

Hey, I said, where’s your ­brother?

She told me he was outside waiting in the van because he didn’t know how to work the parking and also he didn’t actually have his driver’s licence, only his learner’s, he’s fifteen, he’s all jacked up on rebellion and whatever, he just wanted to wait in the van and listen to his ­music.

We headed for the exit and kind of stumbled around, falling over each other. Thebes kept her arm wrapped around my waist and tried to help me with my bag. All I had was one large backpack. I didn’t know how long I’d be staying but it didn’t really matter anyway. I’d lost my boyfriend and didn’t care about my job and there was no reason to go back to Paris. I didn’t own anything besides books, and Marc could keep those if he wanted ­to.

It was sunny and warm and the sky was a sharp, cartoony blue compared to the wet clay skies of Paris, and there was Logan sitting in their ­beat-­up van staring straight ahead at something, not us, music blasting from inside, like the van was a giant Marshall amp. Thebes ran up to the van and threw herself against the windshield. Logan snapped out of his rock ’n’ roll reverie for a second and smiled. Then he got out of the van and walked, glided, over to me and gave me a big hug with one arm and asked me how it was ­going.

All right, I said, how about ­you?

Mmmm, he said. He ­shrugged.

Hey, what’s this? I asked him. I grabbed his arm and squeezed his ­bicep.

Yeah, right, said ­Thebes.

And, dude, your pants! I said. Did you steal them from Andre the Giant? I snapped the elastic band on his boxers. Logan opened the door to the van and threw my stuff ­in.

How was Paris? he ­asked.

What? I ­said. Oh, Paris?

Yeah, he said. How was ­it?

Thebes turned down the volume on the music. Then she told me I should drive instead of Logan. She said she’d been planning her funeral on the way ­there.

I got dumped, I ­said.

No way! said ­Logan.

Well, yeah, I ­said.

You can’t get dumped in Paris, said Logan. Isn’t it supposed to be all–
By a guy or a girl? asked ­Thebes.

A guy, I ­said.

Logan stared hard at Thebes for a few seconds. He said you were gay, she ­said.

No I didn’t, said ­Logan.

You totally did! said ­Thebes.

Okay, Thebes, listen, said Logan. I didn’t–

Hey, I said. It’s okay. It really doesn’t matter. Really. But it was a ­guy.

But you’re not that old, said Thebes, right? You can still find someone if you look hard. How old are ­you?
Twenty-­eight, I ­said.

Okay, ­twenty-­eight, she said. She thought for a second. You have like two years, she said. Maybe you should dress up more, ­though.

Logan ended up driving back to their house because I didn’t know how to tell him not to and because he hadn’t seemed interested in relinquishing control of the wheel anyway. Logan and Thebes yelled at each other all the way back, the music cranked the whole ­time.

Thebes: Stay in your lane, moron!

Logan: Don’t lose your fucking shit, man!

Thebes: I don’t want to die, loser! Use two hands!

Logan: Do NOT grab the steering wheel!

Then Thebes went into this strange kind of commentary thing she does, quoting the imaginary people in her head. This time it was a funeral director, I think. She said: With an impact this severe there is not a hope of reconstructing this kid’s face. She banged the back window with her ­fist.

What was that? I asked ­her.

The lid of my coffin slamming down, she said. Closed casket. I’ll be unrecognizable ­anyway.
It was great to see the kids again. They’d changed a bit, especially Logan. He was a young man now, not a child. More on his mind, maybe, but with less compulsion to share it. Thebes was more manic than the last time I’d seen her. I knew what that was about. It’s hard not to get a little hysterical when you’re trying desperately to keep somebody you love alive, especially when the person you’re trying to save is ambivalent about being saved. Thebes reminded me of myself when I was her age, rushing home from school ahead of Min so I could create the right vibe, a mood of happiness and fun that would sustain her for another day, or so I thought. I’d mentally rehearse what I thought were amusing anecdotes to entertain her, make her laugh. I didn’t know then that all my ridiculous efforts only brought her further down. Sometimes she would laugh or applaud ­half-­heartedly, but it was always with an expression that said, yeah, whatever, Hattie, nice try, but everything is ­bullshit.


My birth triggered a seismic shift in my sister’s life. The day I was born she put her dress on backwards and ran away towards a brighter future, or possibly towards a brighter past. Our parents found her in a tree next door. Had she been planning to jump? She’s been doing that ever since, travelling in two opposite directions at once, towards infancy and death. I don’t know exactly what it was about me. By all accounts before I existed Min was a normal little girl, normal enough. She could pick a direction and stick with it. Our family photo albums are filled, halfway, with shots of Min laughing and smiling and enjoying life. And then, suddenly, I’m in the picture and Min’s joy evaporates. I’ve spent hours staring at those photos trying to understand my sister. Even in the ones in which I don’t appear it’s easy to see by Min’s expression that I am just beyond the lens, somewhere nearby.

Min’s had good days, some inexplicable breaks from the madness, periods of time where she functions beautifully and life is as smooth as glass, almost. The thing I remember most clearly about Cherkis, Thebes’s and Logan’s dad, is how nuts he was about Min and how excited he’d get when Min was on the ­up-­and-­up, taking care of business and acting normal. I liked that about him, but it also broke my heart because he had no idea of the amount of shit that was about to fly. Eventually, though, he did come to understand, and he did what I did, and what so many others in her life have ­done.

He ­left.

Min had a vague notion of where he’d gone. At first it was Tokyo, about as far away as you can get from here without being on your way back. He moved around the Pacific Rim, and then Europe for a while, South America, and then South Dakota. He’d call sometimes to see how the kids were doing, how Min was doing, if she wanted him to come back. No, she didn’t, she said, every time. And if he tried to take the kids she’d kill herself for real. We didn’t know whether this was a bluff or not, but nobody wanted to challenge it. They were all she had, she told him. Cherkis wasn’t the type of guy to hire a lawyer and fight for custody. He told Min he’d wait until the kids were old enough to decide for themselves and take things from there. He didn’t want to rock Min’s boat. He didn’t want anybody getting ­hurt.

I moved to Paris, fled Min’s dark planet for the City of Lights. I didn’t want to leave her and the kids but the truth is she scared me and I thought she might be better off without me, too. Especially if I was the embodiment of her particular anguish. It had been hard to know whether to stay or go.

It’s impossible to move through the stages of grief when a person is both dead and alive, the way Min is. It’s like she’s living permanently in an airport terminal, moving from one departure lounge to another but never getting on a plane. Sometimes I tell myself that I’d do anything for Min. That I’d do whatever was necessary for her to be happy. Except that I’m not entirely sure what that would ­be.

So the next best thing to being dead was being far away, at least as far as Paris. I had a boyfriend, Marc, and a job in a bookstore, and occasionally I’d go home, back to Manitoba, to Min and Thebes and Logan, for Christmas or the odd birthday, or to help with Min if she was in a really bad patch, but of course that was complicated because I never knew whether I should be there or ­not.

I wanted to be an artist, in Paris, or a psychiatrist. Sometimes I’d haul a giant pad of sketch paper and some charcoal pencils to the square in front of the Louvre or wherever the tourists were and I’d offer to sketch them for free. I didn’t feel right about charging anybody, because I wasn’t really doing a good job. In every sketch, it didn’t matter if I was drawing the face of a man or a woman or a kid, I’d include a detail from Min’s face, from what I could remember at that precise moment. Sometimes it was the shape of her eyebrows, or her wide lips, or a constellation of tiny freckles, or even just a shadow beneath the cheekbone. The people I sketched were always slightly confused and disappointed when I showed them my work, I could tell, but most of them were kind, especially because I didn’t expect any ­payment.

Our father died in a drowning accident in Acapulco when Min and I were kids. He drowned trying to save us. We’d been racing and had swum out farther than we should have and Min had started panicking, screaming for help. The current was strong and we couldn’t get back to the shore no matter how hard we pushed against the water. I remember yelling at Min to move sideways and to let go of me. After that, my memory of events is blurry. I have a feeling that Min was pushing me down, under water. I think that I remember her hand on my head, or on my shoulder, but maybe I’m wrong. Our mother told us that Dad had heard our screams and had swum out to get us, but that he too had got caught in the undertow and disappeared. They said it was a riptide. Other people on the beach eventually grabbed a boat from somewhere and rescued us, but by then Dad was gone. Min was fifteen and I was nine. They left us lying in the sun on the beach, crying and vomiting up salt water, while they searched for ­him.

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Jack: A Life With Writers

Jack: A Life With Writers

The Story of Jack McClelland
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Stanley Park

Stanley Park

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The Canvasback

They arranged to meet at Lost Lagoon. It was an in-between place, the city on one side, Stanley Park on the other. Ten years of rare contact, and they had sought each other out. Surprised each other, created expectations.

Now the Professor was late.

Jeremy Papier found a bench up the hill from the lagoon and opened a section of newspaper across the wet boards. The bench was between two cherry trees, the pink blossoms of which met high over his head forming an arch, a doorway. It wasn’t precisely the spot they’d discussed–the Professor had suggested the boathouse–but it was within eyesight, within shouting distance. It was close enough. If he had to wait, Jeremy thought, settling onto the paper and blowing out a long breath, he was going to sit. He crossed one long, aching leg over the other. He fingered the tooling on a favourite pair of cowboy boots, ran long fingers through tangled black hair.

He sat because he was tired, certainly. Jeremy accepted that being a chef, even a young chef, meant being exhausted most of the time. But there had also been a family portrait taken here, on this bench, years before. Also early spring, he remembered; the three of them had sat here under the cherry blossoms.

Jeremy on the one side, seven years old. His mother, Hélène, on the other. The Professor had his arms around them both, feet flat on the grass. He looked extremely pleased. Jeremy’s mother was less obviously so, her expression typically guarded, although she made dozens of copies of the photo and sent these off to relatives spread across Europe from Ireland to Spain, from the Czech Republic to as far east as Bulgaria. Documenting settlement. He wondered if his father, who had no relations other than those in the photo, would remember this detail.

Now Jeremy lit a cigarette and watched an erratic stream of homeless people making their way into the forest for the night. When he arrived there had been seawall walkers and hotdog eaters, birdwatchers, rollerbladers, chess players returning from the picnic tables over by bowling greens. Then lagoon traffic changed direction like a freak tide. The flow of those heading back to their warm apartments in the West End tapered to nothing, and the paths were filled with the delusional, the alcoholic, the paranoid, the bipolar. The Professor’s subjects, his obsession. The inbound. Four hundred hectares of Stanley Park offering its bleak, anonymous shelter to those without other options.

Of course, Jeremy didn’t have to remind himself, the Professor had other options.

They had discussed meeting on the phone earlier in the week. When Jeremy picked up–expecting a late reservation, maybe his black-cod supplier, who was due into Vancouver the next morning–he heard wind and trees rustling at the other end of the line. Normally reticent, the Professor was animated about his most recent research.

“… following on from everything that I have done,” he said, “culminating with this work.” From his end, standing at a pay phone on the far side of the lagoon, the Professor could hear the dishwasher hammering away in the background
behind his son’s tired response.

“Participatory anthropology. Is that what you call it now?” Jeremy was saying. “I thought it was immersive.”

“Like everything,” the Professor answered, “my work has evolved.”

He needed help with something, the Professor said. He wanted to meet.

“How unusual,” Jeremy said.

“And what advice can I give on running a restaurant?” the Professor shot back.

“None,” Jeremy answered. “I just said there was something I wanted to talk to you about. Something that had to do with the restaurant.”

“Strange times,” the Professor said, looking into the darkness around the pay phone. Checking instinctively.

Very strange. The stream of those inbound had slowed to a trickle. A trio of men passed, bent behind shopping carts that were draped and hung with plastic, heaped to the height of pack horses, bags full of other bags. Jeremy could only wonder at the purpose of them all, although the Professor could have told him that the bag itself captured the imagination. It held emblematic power. For its ability to hold, certainly. To secure contents, to carry belongings from place to place. But even the smell of the plastic, its oily permanence, suggested the resilience of things discarded.

Jeremy watched the three men make their way around the lagoon and disappear into the trails. He glanced at his watch, sighed. Lifted his chin and breathed in the saline breeze. It brought to mind the ocean beyond the park, sockeye salmon schooling in the deep, waiting for the DNA-encoded signal to turn in their millions and rush the mouth of the Fraser, the tributary offshoot, the rivulet of water and the gravel-bed spawning grounds beyond. Mate, complete the cycle, die. And then, punctuating this thought, the rhododendron bushes across the lawn boiled briefly and disgorged Caruzo, the Professor’s manic vanguard.

“Hey, hey,” Caruzo said, approaching the bench. “Chef Papier.” He exhaled the words in a blast.

He dressed for the mobile outdoor life, Caruzo. Three or four sweaters, a torn corduroy jacket, a heavy coat, then a raincoat over all of that. It made the big man even bigger, the size of a lineman, six foot five, although stooped a little with the years. Those being of an indeterminate number; Jeremy imagined only that it must be between fifty and ninety. Caruzo had a white garbage bag tied on over one shoe, although it was only threatening to rain, and pants wrapped at the knees in electrical tape. His ageless, wind-beaten face was protected by a blunt beard that fell to his chest. Exposed skin had darkened, blackened as a chameleon might against the same forest backdrop.

“The Professor,” Caruzo announced, “is waiting.”

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The Sudden Disappearance of Seetha

Neela's abilities had first manifested themselves when she was ten and her brother, Navi, was twelve. Navi was the smart child, known throughout the neighbourhood for his ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide faster and better than any other twelve-year-old, and probably better than anyone else in Marasaw. He would pace around his grandmother's rickety wooden house in grey school shorts and an undershirt, using whatever he came upon to test his mathematical speed and accuracy. Twenty-seven and twelve tin cup is thirty-nine tin cup! A hundred and three by six tea towel is six hundred and eighteen tea towel! Neela's grandmother, only in her early forties when Neela and Navi were near puberty, encouraged her grandson's domestic calculation rampages. She challenged him to problem-solve questions: "If I throw seventy-seven black-eye pea in dis pot and boil it for forty-nine days, and spill two quart-a water straining de peas out, but forget de fire on and almost burn down de town by eleven o'clock, how much peas left?"

In his younger days, Navi would stare at the sandy floorboards and, after some reflection, whisper, Seventy-five? But these days he had learned better. "De same amount you start with, Granny."

"Ah Navi-boy," she sighed, with an artificial old-lady voice, "you too quick for your old granny."

While the whole neighbourhood prophesied about Navi's future as a banker or engineer, thrilled that their modest town should possess a boy of such talent, Neela's prospects were rarely discussed. They were hardly noticed in light of her brother and this manifested itself in bodily form – she grew skinnier, shorter and more awkward than he. She tried to do mathematics like her brother, but she would pass household objects and forget to put them into equations. Even when she made a painful effort to do so, she was never as daring, as acrobatic, as Navi. Nine and four channa is twelve… no, thirteen channa… She was aware of how silly she sounded coming up with those lacklustre sums. "Alright girl, dat's good," was as much of a confirmation as Granny could muster, flipping and oiling roti on the stove. "Must follow your brother's example when he wins de contest."

The famous Children's Mathematical Challenge, or the CMC, as the students had nicknamed it, had been initiated by a foreign diplomat who had come to the country. Dismayed at the lack of competitions between schools, he had originally founded the Student Spelling Challenge. He had laboured to get headmasters from towns all over the country to send their most talented spellers to the competition, but his excitement hadn't ignited the country's imagination. It was only years later that the diplomat's son, convinced that arithmetic, not English, was the world's common language, transformed it into a popular math competition.

Navi was Marasaw Elementary School's natural choice. After the headmaster announced that Navi would attend the CMC in the capital city, adult townsfolk took credit for the boy's brilliance. I taught de boy for four years, his teacher told the other teachers. He takes after my family, you know, his grandmother informed her neighbours. It's his name we raise to heaven in prayer, man, his Sunday school teacher confirmed. But deep down, they knew Navi's uncanny skills didn't come from any of them – it wasn't clear how he achieved his spectacular sums, but they knew full well that he didn't need anything from them to know that three by six hundred and seven papaw is one thousand eight hundred and twenty-one papaw.
Still, Navi was generous in his acceptance of the honour. "It's my family, my neighbours, my school and all de good citizens of Marasaw dat made dis happen. Without them teaching and guiding me, I would not even be able to spell seee-emmm-seee," he declared in a speech to the whole school, for which he received applause made insincere by his classmates' secret jealousy and overly sincere by his teachers' delight. "Will you join me now, fine students and teachers of Marasaw Elementary," he said in conclusion, "to sing our school's most beautiful anthem? For I am going to dis Challenge only for you." More than two hundred children, sweating in uniforms cuffed by green and orange bands, stood up noisily.

But Neela didn't sing. She had no choice in attending the assembly, but she had the choice of whether or not to sing. As the others belted out the school' s anthem in that off-key, half-shouting way they always did, Neela mouthed the words, pretending to take heaving breaths between stanzas. She had started such little feats of rebellion the afternoon her granny and brother sat at the kitchen table to write his acceptance speech. Her anger had begun to seethe against Navi's lofty accomplishments, and she knew that the time had come for her to act. I done with being his copycat, done being his hand-puppet. Her underground revolt might go unnoticed, but she didn' t need anyone's attentions. She would still strive to poison the enthusiasm swirling around Navi and his mathematics. He gon' be sorry, real sorry
"Hey, girl," a classmate with puffy ponytails whispered from behind her, between verses three and four, "you so lucky to have a brother like dat!" Neela pretended to be too absorbed in her singing to hear the compliment.

Neela attempted to throw a tantrum, whining to continue playing outside with her friends, but her grandmother would have none of it. "Get your tail in here and help you brother finish packing de bags!" Granny commanded. So Neela kept silent when the three of them took a taxi to the dock at the edge of town. She sucked in her Look over there! when, as their ferry started across the river, a large orange bird that had captured a squirmy fish in its beak perched on a post and stretched out its wings. She held her tongue and clamped her teeth when they arrived on the other side and descended from the boat along wobbling wood planks, dizzy with noontime sun and confused by shouts of family meeting family, Eh boy, eh girl, we over here! Navi's vocal calculations extended to their surroundings while they awaited a minibus – palm trees and expansive bushes, taxi drivers bullying customers, a girl selling ginger beer, stacks of bleached crates acting as chairs. Passengers packed into a lime green van and held tight as it whipped down crowded city streets, blasting everything in its path with a horn rigged to sound like a siren. But, wedged between old women and their plastic bags, Neela refused to affirm her grandmother' s reflection: "Dis driver a madman, I tell you…"

It was the first time that Neela had visited the capital and stayed as a hotel guest. Even though her Marasaw hometown of aged houses and elderly neighbours was only a mile across the river, it seemed terribly unsophisticated in comparison to the city. Never again would she be as mesmerized as she was this time – all the colourfully dressed ladies, shops constructed with bricks, humming mopeds and taxis, poor children jumping in puddles of brown water. It was so animated, so celebratory, even in its most mundane elements. As they walked by the sprawling outdoor market, Neela envisioned the Big Top described in her Royal English Reader for Students textbook. Mighty lions jump through flaming hoops while seals balance balls and clowns tickle everyone's fancy, she recalled when they passed a crowd cheering a jester; he manoeuvred his homemade marionette to flirt with bashful little girls.

That evening, Navi applied arithmetic to everything in the hotel room, more impressive than ever dividing and multiplying the pillows and sheets. "Neel babylove," Granny said, "whole day you quiet. What happen, ba-ba, you sleepy? Go to sleep."

"Yes, Granny," she answered, too genuinely tired to go through her nightly Ow Granny, a little longer, nah routine.

Granny rubbed her hand over a folded blanket on the bed. "See how nice these hotels does be? Watch how pretty dis blanket is. You must enjoy de place while you here – feel it, nah?" she asked, hoping to engage Neela's interest. "Now hear, children, both-a you," Granny said, over twelve hundred and sixty beds minus four hundred and thirty beds, "must call me ‘Mommy' when we out tomorrow, you understand? Nav? Hear, Neela?"

"Yes, Mommy," they replied with equally distracted voices. As Navi became more lavish in his calculations, Neela sank lower into the despair of her brother's sure victory at the contest. Grudgingly, she acknowledged that her silent campaign had made no impact on his spirits or abilities. He spent the night dreaming of stars and planets and moons to add and subtract – he had the strange gift of calm. Although she had seen no results, Neela was too stubborn to abandon her protest. She brought the soundless demonstration into the bustling hotel auditorium the next morning. Navi and dozens of other uniformed children were lined up on stage in velvet-backed chairs, restlessly awaiting the opening speech.

"Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends, students and educators, thank you for being with us today as we mark our thirty-seventh annual Children's Mathematical Challenge. This is a truly marvellous event of higher learning that I look forward to every year," the diplomat's son said, cloaked in a woollen suit at the polished wood podium. "As you are well aware, the fifty fine boys and girls before you have been selected as your country's most promising young mathematicians."

"Shhh, boy, hear de man, nah?" a man sitting behind Neela and her grandmother whispered to his whimpering toddler son. "Watch your sister up there, she over there, you see? Dat man talking about her when he say ‘mathematician,' eh? Aw, she bright bad, yes? Hummm?"

Neela frowned to herself. She knew that the man's attempt to console the boy on the basis of his sister's overbearing accomplishments would make the child more upset, more impatient in his own ordinariness.

"There is nothing more satisfying than seeing children carry the torch of mathematics into the future," the diplomat's son continued, wiping moisture from his forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. "You should be proud of your sons and daughters. Many of them will take what they discover here and, no doubt, will grow to forge a noteworthy legacy for your country. They will bring their childhood success into adult excellence."

"You hear dat?" a woman a few seats away said in a scathing growl toward her two shrinking daughters. "Y'all play-playing whole time at school, and look where your brother is." One girl stared at her shoes while the other concentrated on smoothing her skirt over her knees. "You hear me, you ungrateful pickney?"

A current of warmth rose through Neela, vicarious anger and shame accumulating under her cheeks and ears.

"Y'all think life is easy but it ain't so. Your brother work hard and if you keep play-playing, he gon' leave you behind. See how quick y'all become nothing." Neela watched the girls avoid eye contact with their mother, knowing that she would interpret it as encouragement to continue.

"It's one thing if y'all was succeeding in your classes. Then you could do all your wicked heart desires. You could run all over de square and I'd let you go along your way. I'd keep my mouth shut. But how you girls carry on, must ready yourself for failure. Don't come to me, ‘Mommy, why you didn't tell us how hard it would be? Why you didn't show us de way?' Because I done tell you, I done show you . . ."

Applause drowned her out, forcing Neela's attention back to the diplomat' s son. "I expect your very best today, boys and girls, as we begin our Challenge. As you know, our rules are simple – contestants who provide correct answers will move forward. The contestant who completes the competition without an error will be declared the winner. I wish you the best of luck, children, we all do." More applause rang through the auditorium. "And good luck in all your future endeavours."

The Children's Mathematical Challenge started with simple arithmetic questions posed to each competitor by a panel of judges. Although instructed to hold their applause until the end of each round, family members of children who answered correctly – De answer is four hundred and eighteen, Honourable Judges – responded with infectious clapping and commentary. Yes! Dat's right, child, correct! But by eleven o'clock, after the first of three rounds had closed and errors had purged more than half of the competitors, the audience was edgy. The judges' questions became more compounded – Contestant, what is four thousand and thirty-seven by sixty-two minus five hundred and nine? Answers no longer snapped out immediately, and delay tactics emerged. Some children asked for questions to be repeated – and other children stopped in the middle of their calculations to fulfill an urgent need to buckle loose shoes. Contenders no longer approached the podium bouncy and self-assured, hoping that humbled steps would translate into more cautious calculations.

Yet Navi didn't share this hesitation. Although his grandmother sat stiffly in her seat, squeezing Neela's hand whenever the words Navi Keetham, please address de Honourable Panel were sounded, Navi himself was just fine.

"Ah, your brother's something else, Neela." Granny sighed as her grandson, the strongest competitor in the CMC, strolled back to his chair after a particularly complex sum. "You hear what he say, love? You hear your brother give de correct answer? And he didn't break a sweat!" Only now aware that Neela had been silent the whole morning, Granny bent her neck so her eyes would meet her granddaughter' s.

"Yes, Mommy, I hear."

"Oh, Neela," Granny said, straightening herself and wrapping an arm around Neela's shoulders, "you nervous for Navi, nah? Ow, don't worry yourself, he gon' do good."

Neela grasped onto the misguided comfort, knowing that it was fleeting. She pressed her ear to her grandmother's chest, into the heavily flowered material of her best and least- worn dress. "Mommy, if all these people praying for they own children to win, but only one is to win, how come everybody think their prayer gon' be answered?"

Her grandmother grinned. "Well, Neela, you asking a hard thing now, girl! Why you want to get trap up in dis kind-a hard question? You mus' -ee need some senna to move your belly and pass it away…"

"No, Granny!" Neela said, having difficulty restraining laughter whenever her grandmother reduced all ills to the need to take laxatives. "I mean, Mommy."

"Looks like I gon' got to get you some good castor oil when we reach home, nah?"

"No! Answer me! Please?"

Granny drew a large, thoughtful breath. "Baby, I can't really tell you," she said, fingering two skinny gold bangles on her wrist, twisting them to reveal their patterned sides. Neela watched how they glided over a well-known streak of dark scars on her arm, scars and gold looking as shiny as each other in the auditorium's lighting. "Maybe it's wrong for them to pray for they own children. Maybe they should pray for de right one to win and be at peace with it. Or maybe it ain't right to pray for dis kind-a thing at all. I don't know, Neela."

"You praying for Navi?" she probed, passing her forefinger over the texture of her grandmother's bangles and watching them slide back down over the scars.

"Well, all dat being said, of course I'm praying for your brother. I can't help but pray with all my heart dat he'll win."

Neela looked to the podium and a lanky, unsteady girl. Her school uniform was similar to Neela's, only it included a white hat with a neat navy blue bow to the side.

"Contestant, what is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three?"

Body motionless, the girl's eyes flickered to her father and little brother, right behind Neela and her grandmother.

"It's okay, girl, take your time and think it through," the father whispered in his daughter's direction. Neela found herself thinking that perhaps this tall girl was the right child to win, even though Granny was praying so earnestly for Navi. You can get it, you can get dis answer, girl, she thought to herself, on an impulse.

The girl shifted her weight from one elongated leg to another. "Can you please repeat de question, Honourable Judge?" she requested.

"What is seventeen hundred and thirty-six by forty-eight plus ninety-three, contestant?"

She scratched the back of her neck, causing her hat's front rim to bob up and down at the audience. "Come on, you know dis!" her father whispered urgently. The girl watched him, fear of elimination distorting her expression into a grimace. Don't worry with your daddy, Neela silently consoled, just think carefully. Think about de numbers, don't worry with anybody else.
The girl opened her mouth rashly but snapped it shut again, letting her sightline pause at her shoes. She straightened her back. "Please answer de question, contestant," a judge instructed unsympathetically. Don't worry with him, either, Neela thought, you gon' be fine.
"Oh no, looks like she gon' lose dis one," Granny murmured, feeling uneasy for the girl's father. Uh-uh, I think you can get dis answer, girl, I know you gon' get it, confirmed Neela. You close, I can see you close….
"Answer de question, please," another judge ordered, irritated, and the girl lifted her head. She squinted. You can do it, girl, you might be de right one to win! The girl opened her eyes wide with knowledge. Yes! You got it!
"De answer is eighty-three thousand, four hundred and twenty-one, Honourable Judges."

"Very good, contestant. You may take your seat."

Everyone cheered for the tall girl, her father most of all; he leaped to his feet and clapped his hands high above his chest – Dat's my child, my daughter! – while she skipped to her seat and enjoyed back-patting from contestants around her. Neela smiled without reservation for the first time that day.

Neela started to encourage every contestant in the same way, save one. She spoke to them with growing confidence as they took their place at the podium, inwardly telling them, You could be de one to win, you can get de correct answer, your family too-too frightened you gon' lose but I believe you can win. And they were thirsty for it, soaking in her bountiful support while struggling through increasingly difficult questions. She prompted the others not in panic of their failures, but in apprehension about her brother's success. Her faith was certain in a way that those children had never known from wishful parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. It was safe, lavished equally upon them all.

But, unbeknownst to him, Navi was at a severe disadvantage at the end of the third and final round, when only he and one contestant remained in the challenge. A sharp scratch of doubt ran through his body as he was called to the front of the stage. He noticed that his grandmother and sister had come forward on their seats and were staring at him. He pushed aside his uncertainty and recomposed himself on the way to the podium, legs straight and eyes fixed on the judges' platform.
You was sure of yourself till now, nah? He heard himself think. "Contestant, what is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five?" Navi suspended his senses to process the numbers.
Alright, let's see if you can get dis one, he thought. Twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty five is twelve thousand nine hundred and seven. Subtract six hundred and seventy-seven? Were those de right numbers? Yes. You sure? Yes… I think… You ain't sure. Don't tell me you forgetting de question so fast. Twelve thousand and forty-two, add eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven. Yes. Dat does sound right. Or is it six thousand and seventy-seven? Or seven thousand and sixty-six? They barely read de thing and it's slipping from you. No, I'm alright, I got de right numbers. Twelve thousand and forty-two. Eight thousand and sixty-five. Six hundred and seventy-seven . . . wait. Something don't seem right. Twelve thousand and forty-two… eight thousand and… or is it eight hundred… It's all starting to get mix up, boy. "Honourable Judge," Navi asked, "would you please repeat de question?"

The judge observed him over spectacles that rested low on the tip of his nose. By this point in the day, he was tired of repeating himself. "What is twelve thousand and forty-two and eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six hundred and seventy-seven divided by five," he replied.

Alright, dat's it – twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and sixty-five, six hundred and seventy-seven. You a-hundred percent sure? Um-hum, de first piece equals twelve thousand nine hundred and seven; dat number minus six hundred and seventy-seven is twelve thousand two hundred and thirty. And dat's divisible by five, so… But dat can't be right. Yes, it is, twelve thousand and forty-two minus eight hundred and sixty-five, minus six thousand and seventy-five… is six thousand eight hundred and thirty. So how did I get twelve thousand two hundred and thirty de first time? Hum. Getting confused again. First I'm to subtract, then add, then divide. Or add, then subtract… or subtract both times and divide? You mean dis simple question's too hard for you to calculate? Come nah, man. What a disappointment you turning out to be.

He looked to the judges with artificial hope that they might speak his question once more, but the judge with the spectacles gave him nothing. "Please answer promptly, contestant," he said flatly when their gazes met. Navi was aware that bewilderment had infested his expression. Amongst the layers of auditorium seats, he located his family again. One of them had predictably anxious eyes and furrowed brows. The other had a face of pure stone.
I thought you was better than dis. Six thousand eight hundred and thirty… Dat calculation just don't sound right. Is it adding both times and dividing by five? Or adding and subtracting, and then dividing? You can't remember de numbers or what to do. Looks like you ain't as clever as you thought. Twelve thousand and forty-two, eight hundred and seventy-seven… six hundred and sixty-five?

"Answer de question now." You hear de judge, you can't stall no more. Six thousand eight hundred and thirty divided by five is one thousand three-hundred and sixty-six. Time run out. Dat must be de answer. It's all you can offer them now…
"Contestant, answer de question."

"One thousand three-hundred and sixty-six, Honourable Judges," Navi answered, as if his grandmother had tricked him with a math problem about peas in a pot.

"Incorrect. De answer is two thousand four hundred and forty-six. You have been eliminated from de competition."

Granny remained rigid, unable to let go of Neela's hand. Navi returned to his chair robotically, too numb to perceive the audience excitedly applauding the winner – they had fused into a mass of disjointed faces. He could hardly comprehend that he had gotten so far and lost. That's why he didn't expect to tell himself such a thing when he sat down, a thought so contrary to what he had blindly assumed ever since he had been chosen to compete – Maybe I was wrong all along, maybe I wasn't de right one to win.

The tall girl accepted the first place cash prize and a large trophy for her headmaster to display at her school, while Navi accepted a bronze plaque emblazoned with Second Place. Granny proudly positioned the plaque in her rickety cabinet, between the Her Majesty's collector plate and a yellowing regal dolly with a lavender ball gown. She would point to it every time visitors came by – rather than impressing them, it led to a further question. What happen, Sugee, why de boy didn't win first place? Even when visitors fought the temptation to pose such a thing aloud, Navi was guarded against their flash of puzzlement over his second-place status, the very confusion he felt when he glanced at the plaque himself.

He didn't take it with him years later when he left the country, and he certainly didn't reply to the part of his grandmother's letters that read, I polish your award every week, when I open the cabinet to dust the plates… He completely disregarded the plaque when he became the first from his country to fill an impressive overseas government position. But he would never forget that look on his sister's face before he made an inexplicable error at the Children's Mathematical Challenge.

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Hold On to Your Kids

Hold On to Your Kids

Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers
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PART ONE: The Phenomenon of Peer Orientation
Chapter One: In Our Own Backyard

Something has changed. We can sense it, can feel it, just not find the words for it. Children are not quite the same as we remember being. They seem less likely to take their cues from adults, less inclined to please those in charge, less afraid of getting into trouble. Parenting, too, seems to have changed. Our parents were more confident, more certain of themselves and had more impact on us, for better -- or, sometimes, for worse. For many today, parenting does not feel natural. Through the ages adults have complained about children being less respectful of their elders and more difficult to manage than preceding generations, but could it be that this time it is for real?

Today’s parents love their children as much as parents ever have, but the love doesn’t always get through. We have just as much to teach them as parents ever did, but they seem less interested in following our direction. We can sense our children’s potential but do not feel empowered to guide them toward fulfilling it. Sometimes they live and act as if they have been seduced away from us by some siren song we do not hear. We fear, if only vaguely, that the world has become less safe for them and that we are powerless to protect them. The gap opening up between children and adults can seem unbridgeable at times.

We struggle to live up to our image of what parenting ought to be like. Not achieving the results we want, we plead with our children, we cajole, bribe, reward or punish. We hear ourselves address them in tones that seem harsh even to us and foreign to our true nature. We sense ourselves grow cold in moments of crisis, precisely when we would wish to summon our unconditional love. We feel hurt as parents, and rejected. We blame -- ourselves for failing at the parenting task, or our children for being recalcitrant, or television for distracting them, or the school system for not being strict enough. When our impotence becomes unbearable we reach for simplistic, authoritarian formulas consistent with the do-it-yourself/quick-fix ethos of our era.

The very importance of parenting to the development and maturation of young human beings has come under question. “Do Parents Matter?” was the title of a cover article in Newsweek magazine in 1998. “Parenting has been oversold,” argued a book1 that received international attention that year. “You have been led to believe that you have more of an influence on your child’s personality than you really do.”

The question of parental influence would not be of great moment if things were going well with our young. They are not -- and many of us feel that instinctively, even if we cannot explain exactly how and why. That our children do not seem to listen to us or to embrace our traditions and culture as their own would, perhaps, be acceptable in itself -- if we felt that they were truly self-sufficient, self-directed and grounded in themselves, if they had a positive sense of who they are and if they possessed a clear sense of direction and purpose in life. We see that for so many children and young adults those qualities are lacking. In homes, in schools, in community after community developing young human beings have lost their moorings. Many lack self-control and are increasingly prone to alienation, drug use, violence and a general aimlessness. They are less teachable and more difficult to manage than their counterparts of even a few decades ago. Many have lost their ability to adapt, to learn from negative experience and to mature. The crisis of the young has manifested itself ominously in the growing problem of bullying in the schools and, at its most extreme, in the murder of children by children, whether in British Columbia or New York, Quebec or Colorado.

Committed and responsible parents are frustrated. Our cues are not being taken, our directives are ineffective, and it appears our children would rather be elsewhere than at home. Despite our loving care kids seem highly stressed. Parents and other elders no longer appear to be the natural mooring point for the young, as used to be the case with human beings and is still the case with all other species living in their natural habitats. Senior generations, the parents and grandparents of the baby boomer group, look at us with incomprehension. “We didn’t need how-to manuals on parenting in our days, we just did it,” they say, with some mixture of truth and misunderstanding.

This state of affairs is ironic, given that more is known about child development than ever before. More courses and books are available on child rearing, and we can offer our children more things to do and explore. We probably live in a more child-centred universe than our predecessors did.

So what has changed? The problem, in a word, is context. Parenting is not something we can engage in with just any child, no matter how well intentioned, skilled or compassionate we may be. Parenting requires a context to be effective. A child must be receptive to our parenting for us to be successful in our nurturing, comforting, guiding and directing. Children do not automatically grant us the authority to parent them just because we are adults, or just because we love them or know what is good for them or have their best interests at heart. Those who parent other people’s children are often confronted by this fact, be they step-parents, adoptive parents, foster parents, grandparents, babysitters, nannies, daycare providers or teachers. Less obviously but of great importance is the fact that even with one’s own children the natural parenting authority can become lost if the context for it becomes eroded.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Shakespeare's Face


Like the painting that inspired it, this book can be read in different ways. One way is as a work of investigative journalism in which Stephanie Nolen goes behind the story she broke in May 2001 about a then-unknown portrait possibly of William Shakespeare. Her six chapters, which form the spine of the book, take us along on her voyage of discovery. As she notes, she is neither a Shakespeare scholar nor a trained art historian, but rather a curious layperson who attempts to unravel the mystery of the painting and to seek answers to the many questions it poses. From time to time, she calls on an expert to assist her in solving a particular puzzle or in separating fact from fiction.

Read another way, Shakespeare’s Face is a fascinating work of literary and art historical scholarship in which a distinguished group of experts from Canada, Great Britain and the United States bring all their wit and learning to bear on a very old picture. They look at the Sanders portrait as an artifact, as a work of art, as a cultural icon and as a fascinating window into Shakespeare’s world. I’ve met only two of these scholars in person, but I like to imagine them gathered around the painting as I saw it when it went on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, in the summer of 2001.

The portrait sits on a pedestal in the middle of a small gallery. The scholars form a circle around this enigmatic object -- are some of them trying to catch its eye? -- each one with a different point of vantage. At first the room is quiet, as each of them looks for the clues that mean the most to her or him. One scholar moves up to look at the painting face to face. Another inspects the back of the panel under a magnifying glass. Still another seems to be as interested in his Collected Works of Shakespeare as in the picture. Finally one of them offers an opinion. Another chimes in. And soon the room is filled with animated discourse. (Involved in this conversation and yet separate from it is Stephanie Nolen, who is writing furiously in her notebook and missing not one crucial detail.) The conversation they might have had if they had met around the portrait is the one they now hold in the pages of this book.

But perhaps the most satisfying way of reading Shakespeare’s Face is as a historical detective story in which some of the evidence is four hundred years old, some is still warm and some may still turn up. In this version of the book the skills of all its writers -- ten scholars and one journalist -- are needed: investigative reporting; art historical analysis; paleography; literary deduction; genealogy; cultural anthropology; scientific analysis; painstaking archival research, to name a few. All their skills combine in an attempt to answer the question that all of us must ask of the slightly naughty-looking fellow in the Sanders portrait: Are you Shakespeare, or aren’t you? Is yours the face of genius?

If your experience of reading Shakespeare’s Face is anything like mine has been as its editor, charged with bringing all these pieces together into what I hope makes for a coherent whole, then as you turn these pages, and move from one point of view to another, you will change your opinion time and again on its central question. In the process you will learn a great deal about a great many things, ranging from the forensic analysis of old works of art to the hidden messages in obscure Elizabethan poems. But most of all you will gain a new and more intimate sense of William Shakespeare.

However you read this book, you will always come back to Shakespeare and the extraordinary staying power of his genius. He is omnipresent in our world even if he comes from a place and time quite alien to our own. He is where we least expect him, including, some would argue, in a painted face on an old and somewhat battered oak panel that has gone unnoticed for most of its life since perhaps a fledgling player in Shakespeare’s company applied the paint, layer on layer on layer, until it formed a face -- a face of which one thing can be said for sure: it looked upon the same England that Shakespeare saw four centuries ago.

Rick Archbold
Toronto, Spring 2002

From the Hardcover edition.

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Area Woman Blows Gasket

Area Woman Blows Gasket

Tales from the Domestic Frontier
tagged : motherhood
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The other day, I had to write an op-ed for USA Today, which meant that I had to formulate an opinion about something in the news, and this required tracking the news, which is like following an exploding bag of confetti. Facts fly out of media damnably fast, with spectacular aimlessness, and pundits who try to pursue those facts develop something less like wisdom and more like ADD.

“Did you know that the average person swallows five spiders a year?” I asked my husband last night.

“No, I did not,” he replied, “and don’t tell me you’re going to write a column about it.”

“Actually, I don’t plan to,” I said, “because, also, the Middle East is burning down, and some woman sued McDonald’s because she burned her mouth on a pickle, and the actor Richard Harris died, and he had cancer, and women who took the Pill in the sixties are more prone to breast cancer, and cancer charities are being given stock options as a new form of donation, and donations are up for Hillary Clinton, and so are polls, and a new poll suggests that more people in Europe are smoking pot, and pots are on sale at Wal-Mart.”

“I don’t suppose you remembered to buy cat food at the corner store,” my husband replied.

“No, I forgot,” I said. This is how conversations go in our house – I believe the term is nonlinear. “But,” I added, “it would help if the dog stopped gobbling the kitten kibble in addition to his own specially formulated Science Diet for Seniors.”

Of course, my husband likes to point out that our dog and three cats could subsist quite happily on an undifferentiated blend of sparrow corpses and wood chips, if I would just stop buying into the “science” and “expertise” of the pet food industry. But I cannot. I read the news. How, in good conscience, could I feed them dead birds when a “new study shows” that only specially formulated Science Diet for Seniors – or a similar competing brand – will ease digestion in older dogs? How, for that matter, could I, as a worried mother, wife, and woman who wants to reach a ripe old age, ignore what “a new book argues” or what “scientists now believe” about anything?

As I write, a new study shows that “three out of four mothers have no idea what should be in a balanced diet for their children. Food fads and health scares are so common, it has left most mums confused.”

Indeed. That is one way to put it. Addled, guilt-ridden, anxious, constantly at cross-purposes trying to keep up – those are other phrases that spring to mind.

But not to worry. If the news proves too vexing, you have choices. You may choose not to follow it, with the only real consequence being that you never know when the emergency evacuation orders are issued for your town or the cheese you’ve been feeding your children has been abruptly recalled from the shelves.

Alternatively, you may choose to follow select streams of news, pertaining for instance to global warming, the possibility of abrupt climate change, terrorism, and what’s up with Brad and Jennifer. Otherwise, ignore the headlines, and calm yourself down with therapy of some sort. I’ve tried this. It turns out that there are some challenging choices along that road, too. You find yourself whacking through a thicket of options in terms of retail, pharmaceutical, athletic, vacation, or talk therapy, and then have to select from all the vast bemusing subsets to be found therein. So you might skip therapy. Seek wisdom instead. Dabble in kabbalah and change your name to Esther, hire a pet psychic, have your palm read, audit every single course at the Learning Annex. There are so many contradictory possibilities, you could write a book about it. Certainly, I did.

But first, I confronted a basic choice, an A or B question that I highly recommend your answering: Stand in your kitchen clutching parenting books in one hand and credit card options in the other, while the cats eat the dog’s kibble and the phone rings off the hook, and decide whether to laugh or to cry.

News We Can’t Use

Hemp Waffles: Betcha Can’t Eat Just One

The other day, I bought some organic maple syrup, because I’d read something alarming in the paper about lead being present in ordinary maple syrup. I’m not sure if this was because the sap was being stirred with pencils or because the syrup was simmered in vats covered with heavy X-ray blankets. But all neurotic parents know that lead exposure will either kill their offspring or turn them into violent psychopaths. And it is my job, my calling, my necessity and pleasure, to guide my two children through the shoals of a childhood filled with fast-flowing traffic and pedophiles, pesticide residues, asbestos-lined walls, and lead-infused condiments to a safe footing on the shore of adulthood. So I purchased some organic syrup, and then I went home and poured it onto a pair of Eggo waffles.

After a few bites, I put down my fork and stared at my plate. This is sort of silly, I thought. What health advantage am I pursuing? Surely whatever lurks in ordinary maple syrup couldn’t be worse for my family than the unidentified substances that menace our bodies via frozen waffles. If I’m going to be a good mother, I should buy organic waffles.

Thus I went to my local health food store and immediately confronted the domino effect of one organic ingredient demanding another. Organic flax-seed blueberry waffles cry out for organic butter, which in turn demands to be spread on organic bread, or at least on English muffins crafted of spelt, which then require, as logic dictates, a container of organic jam. And so forth and so on, all the way across the food chain, until one has no money left to pay for the children’s shoes. Eventually, I drew the line at soybean potpie. People who won’t eat organic chicken in a potpie shouldn’t eat a potpie; they should eat something else. Like a tofu burger or a chickpea steak. Or really what I am saying – to myself, since I’m talking to myself in the health food store – is that vegetarians ought to get over their weird conceptual attachment to meat and stop eating pretend-meat products. Carnivores don’t try to make their meat taste like vegetables, after all. They don’t go to rib joints and ask for shredded pork slaw or salads made of giblets.

I also refused to buy vegan lip balm.

“What’s vegan about this lip balm?” I asked the proprietor, a handsome Asian man with a slicked-back ponytail and a white T-shirt pulled taut over his muscles.

“No beeswax,” he said, which failed to enlighten me.

“What’s wrong with beeswax? Is it bad for you, or are the bees being maltreated? They’re not free-range bees? Is that it?”

“It’s a vegan thing,” he said, mysteriously.

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Various Positions

Various Positions

A Life of Leonard Cohen
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