Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Past Deadline: Creepy Old World

Because we don't have enough to worry about. Published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, May 26/09.

Creepy old world

I have a sweet seven-year-old in my midst. I’m told that, in general, this is a magical age. Seven-year-olds are still full of wonder; they are inquisitive and curious and ask “why” a lot but usually in a sensible way, with thoughtful questions and their opinions and ideas thrown in. Seven-year-olds are loving, loveable and still seem to like doing stuff with their parents. It’s a great age.

Seven is one year away from being eight, which is the same age Victoria Stafford was when she was abducted after school one day six weeks ago and subsequently killed.

Man oh man.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, which certainly has its merits, you’ve probably heard of Tori Stafford. Her disappearance was highly publicized and there was also that surveillance video showing the woman with the white coat and long, dark hair walking with Tori away from her Woodstock elementary school.

You don’t want to panic about these things, but they make you think. Being a “helicopter” parent, hovering over junior all the time, is just no good. Kids need to be kids and they need to learn how to do things on their own. I already struggle with this a bit because my lovable seven-year-old is a worrier like his mom. (As an aside, I stand in awe of my three-year-old, who embraces every new experience with gusto. I’m hoping she’ll rub off on us a bit.)

Our society has become paranoid. Even though I tell myself that child abductions, especially by strangers, are a rare thing and we don’t need to immediately fall into hyper-vigilant mode, I still find myself wondering how something like this could happen.

As I write this, the police haven’t revealed much about the two people arrested for the abduction and murder of Tori Stafford. It has been reported in the media there may be some sort of connection between the girl’s mother and the woman accused in the abduction. That’s where it gets scary.

It’s one thing to tell your kids not to talk to strangers. It’s fairly straightforward to explain they should never get into someone’s car, even to help give directions or for candy or to see puppies. Just don’t go anywhere with a stranger.

But what do you tell them about people they kinda know? What if it’s some person they’ve seen Mom chatting with in a friendly way? What if it’s someone they recognize from a store or a restaurant? Or someone Mom or Dad has worked with before?

What if someone you know and have no reason to suspect or distrust suddenly becomes that person who shows up at your kid’s school and spins your trusting little guy some yarn about Mommy needing her to pick him up instead that day?

It’s not right to teach kids to be suspicious of everyone. It’s not fair to fill them with fear and distrust. Childhood should be about exploration and growing and fun and just not having to worry about stuff. During childhood kids should be learning how to become thoughtful citizens who will help other people – even strangers.

This kind of fear erects fences around us. If, for example, I see a child who I don’t know in some sort of distress (skinned knees and many tears), if I offer to help will it a) scare the bejeebers out of the kid (“Ah! Kindly stranger! Run away!”) or b) make me think twice about helping because I am a stranger?

All we can do, I guess, is help our kids to develop their common sense and to trust their guts. If the story doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t feel right, then tell an adult you do know and trust – such as a teacher if you’re at school.

I’m not looking forward to the day when the details about Tori Stafford’s case are revealed. On the one hand, I feel a need to know how the accused woman allegedly lured Tori away. What did she say to her? On the other hand, will it give rise to new worries? How can I prevent this from happening to my kid?

Yes, living under that rock looks pretty good sometimes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Past Deadline: The Lullaby Sounds of Downtown

It's just a different kind of screaming in the 'hood now. As published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, May 19/09.

The lullaby sounds of downtown

I’ve been trying to remember what triggered vague feelings of nostalgia for living in my old apartment. Is it because there was a dishwasher? Nope – just a big double ceramic sink that was good for a) smashing glasses and b) hiding hoards of dirty dishes. Was it because it had a large closet right by the front door for stashing coats? Nope – although I do miss that. Was it because we had to lug our groceries up two flights of stairs? Nope – although that was darned good exercise (and, coincidentally, it was a good 20 pounds ago).

Ah. I betcha it was the fireworks.

Some knucklehead was setting off fireworks not far from my neighbourhood a couple of weeks ago. It would happen randomly – a couple here, a couple more an hour later – just enough to be annoying. It reminded me of other random noises and, ahem, interesting personalities we encountered when living downtown about a decade ago.

Yes, even though some folks would argue the streets of Perth roll up after 9 p.m. and everyone toddles off to bed or to watch a reality show, I can assure you there was always interesting stuff happening.

After we got married, Groom-boy and I lived in a great apartment right downtown. Not only were we a mere half block from our workplace, The Perth Courier, but we could really keep an eye on things. This was super handy when it came to such matters of importance as which way the fire trucks were going. We could see them and hear them from our third-floor perch. We became experts at distinguishing sirens and directions travelled.

When we moved from there to a house a few years later, the relative silence of our neighbourhood was unnerving. That’s not to say our new neighbourhood, which isn’t really all that far from downtown, is exceptionally quiet – it’s just that living downtown can get, well, a bit noisy by times.

There’s that truck-route factor, for one thing. You eventually get used to the sound of 18-wheelers gearing down under your bedroom window as they prepare to turn off of Gore onto North in the middle of the night. When we moved, though, I distinctly remember being kept awake by the sound of my own blood coursing through my veins. For the first time in years I started sleeping like the dead – at least until we had kids.

The bulk of the charm of living downtown has to be handed to the interesting people who occasionally linger too long in one spot.

One of my all-time favourites was the drunk guy who stood on a nearby corner for two hours in the middle of the night. Every time a car went by he’d yell, “Woo hoo!” followed by something I can’t say in a family newspaper.

I am also reminded of those days because I’m hearing the familiar “chug chug chug” of the line-painting dudes currently doing their thing all over town. One year, late at night, they were working on the lines on Foster Street below our window. One guy kept hollering at another guy. “Kenny! KENNY! Over here! HERE! KENNY!” Kenny was either a) new, b) drunk, c) not very good at painting lines or d) all of the above.

Speaking of drunk (not that it happens much downtown), some sort of “Most Persistent Downtown Drunk Woman” award should probably go to the lovely lady who spent an hour yelling up at a closed window across the street from us one time. “Jimmy! Jimmy! JIMMY!” Over and over and over. Jimmy clearly did not want anything to do with this woman, who we affectionately remember as Unstable Mabel. Finally, so we could get back to listening to the roar of the 18-wheelers in peace, Groom-boy went to our window. “He’s not home!” he hollered, before ducking down out of sight. Oh, did we giggle over that. Good times!

Yes, those were the heady days of our youth. Now our sleeps are sometimes interrupted by different sounds – usually followed by a whispered, “Mom!” or “Dad! Can you snugaminute?”
Beats the sound of 18-wheelers any night.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Past Deadline: It's Enough to Make You Swear

I swear this was published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, May 12/09.

It’s enough to make you swear

The other day I walked into the den and Girlchild was wandering around saying, “Ship ship ship ship.”

Boychild was sitting on the couch watching TV.

“What are you doing, Girlchild?” I asked.

“Oh,” Boychild pipes up, “She’s saying a bad word, but she’s not saying it right.” He turns to her. "Girlchild, that’s not the way you say it!”

“Ship ship ship ship.”

He looks at me exasperated. The hamster is running furiously in my brain.

“Where did she learn the word that she’s not saying right?” I ask.

“Well, I told her but didn’t really say it,” he says, adding, “I told her we’re not supposed to say that word.”

“Don’t tell her stuff like that, Boychild!” I said in my best Archie Bunker voice. Edith! “You know when you say stuff like that she’s just going to repeat it!”

“Ship ship ship ship ship.”

“See? And where did you learn this word that you’re not supposed to say?” I always hate asking questions like that because I’m afraid I won’t like the answer; that it’ll be something along the lines of, “Well, Mom, you said it the other day.”

Groom-boy and I try really hard not to swear around the kids. We prefer to let all our naughty words come out late at night long after the kids are in bed while we do wild and crazy things like watching the news and making fun of the anchors. Sometimes, though, ship happens. My spacious office, for example, is located right outside Boychild’s bedroom in the dormer window area. I do a lot of work after he goes to bed. I freely admit that if the computer isn’t cooperating, strings of not-so-nice words might come flying out of my mouth. “Listen you icky, poopy darned old machine,” I have been known to say. “If you don’t open that file I swear I’m gonna throw you out the oopsy window!”

The only other time I have been known to cuss is after watching The Sopranos, which taught me all sorts of new words. Of course since that show has been off the air for a while and I don’t have time to watch the reruns on A&E, I haven’t really sworn much at all for a couple of years. Ahem.

Anyway, much to my – uh – relief, sort of, Boychild didn’t point a finger at his hardly-ever-foulmouthed parents. Instead, he named an older boy at school. Apparently the primary kids let fly with the s-word and f-word now and again. Sigh.

“Ship ship ship ship,” continues the parrot.

“Alright, Girlchild, that’s enough,” I say in my best parental-authority-about-to-be-ignored voice.

I turn back to Boychild. “You know those are grown-up words that kids shouldn’t use,” I say, adding quickly that grown-ups probably should use them either. “If anyone hears you using them at school, you’ll probably be sent to the principal’s office.”

“I know,” he says.

Of course I really have no idea if he would be sent to the principal’s office. You may have noticed I am prone to exaggeration by times. Perhaps I should have suggested he would be expelled and sent to jail.

I gotta hand it to Boychild, though; he plays the game well. He seems to have a good sense of right and wrong. For example, as two of his buddies were taking a toddler push bike to the top of the slide in our backyard and running it down, he apparently stood there and lectured them about how they shouldn’t be doing it because it’s dangerous. Atta, boy. Too bad he didn’t come and tell me before one of them fell off backward and landed on his head.

Like any good older sibling, though, Boychild knows how to get things going with his sister. I’m sure he would have loved to have seen my reaction had his sister indeed mastered the correct pronunciation of the s-word. Ah, the fine art of getting siblings in trouble. Perhaps it’s genetic, in which case he got it from a pro. Just ask my parents. And my little brother, for that matter.

I have no doubt whatsoever that one of these days the ship will really hit the fan.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Past Deadline: Who's Calling, Please?

A friend of my mom's told me today that she reads my column in the paper and that I am "so normal!" I'm not sure if she had already read today's issue of The Perth Courier (Tuesday, May 5/09) when she said that....

Who’s calling, please?

Remember when the busy signal was king? When answering machines didn’t exist? How the phone would ring and ring if someone wasn’t home and you’d just hang up?

I do. I even remember rotary phones with their clickety dial and real-bell ring. Yes, kids, that’s why folks talk about “dialling” a number instead of calling or pressing it.

I think today we’re too connected and accessible. It just might lead to brain damage. (See below.)

This is a busy house filled with small kids, noisy cats and a Groom-boy. Sometimes when the phone rings I prefer to let the answering machine get it while the din dies down. I know it’s hard to believe, but occasionally people are shrieking at my house. Usually it’s not Groom-boy; it’s often the small blonde one who isn’t old enough to go to school yet.

There are some good things about call display. One is, as I’ve alluded to, that it gives you a chance to collect your thoughts or papers or small screaming children before answering the phone. This is especially handy when one wants to portray a somewhat professional appearance with one’s home-based communications business.

Another great thing is it lets you be a goof. When Groom-boy knows the caller, he can gruffly answer, “Puffy’s Pizza, Puffy speaking.” There’s a guy who knows how to have fun!

It’s also a reasonably good screen against telemarketers. Sometimes the telemarketers will give up after a few tries of no one answering. Not always, though. Even call display cannot counter persistence.

There is one drawback, though, for people who are compulsive about these sorts of things, and that is the “gotta know who’s calling” syndrome. With call display you start to recognize which numbers are probably telemarketers. That’s all fine and good, but sometimes people with legitimate-looking numbers and names have the nerve to call without leaving a message.


I’ll say, “Groom-boy,” because that’s what I call him at home, “do you know Joe Smith? It’s a Perth number.”

“Nope,” he’ll respond.

“Well he called here and didn’t leave a message.”

“Uh huh.”

So then you scratch your head and wonder what on earth Joe Smith could want. Who is he? Is it important? Are you missing out on something crucial? A new client? So you look it up in the phone book and see he lives on Hwy. 7. That sure narrows it down. “Aha!” you say. It still means nothing.

Eventually you slam your head against the wall with the futility of it all – these people who call once and never call back and leave you guessing as to why. And then you get a life and remember that, yes, sometimes people call wrong numbers. There’s no need to leave a message when you realize you’ve done such a thing.

Getting a grip, now.

Recently a number came up that had a 613 area code but no name. I bravely answered it. A very polite woman introduced herself and asked if Groom-boy was home (only she didn’t call him Groom-boy). I said he wasn’t and asked to take a message, whereupon she asked me if I was a supporter of a particular federal political party. There must have been something emphatic in the way I quickly said “NO!” because she thanked me and that was that.

Later, because we’re fun-loving folks with small children who go to bed early, we Googled the phone number. That can be a fun pastime – try it with your own number sometime! Invite your friends! Anyway, a long list of hits came up consisting chiefly of people posting notes on reverse-look-up websites complaining about harassing phone calls from this political party. One writer said the party is “annoying the entire country one phone number at a time.”

Hahaha! Ah, the Internet. What fun!

It was odd to see so many perplexed people posting rather desperate messages wondering why certain numbers had called them. (Kind of like this column, I guess.)It makes me think we were all better off when we had less of this sort of thing to contemplate.