Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Past Deadline: We All Stay Home

Here's the latest on the home front - published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, Feb. 24/09.

We all stay home

“Hm. We’re almost out of milk,” I observe, mentally calculating how many more cups of coffee those last few dribbles will serve.

“We are?” Groom-boy asks as he settles into a chair with a newspaper. He is currently on sabbatical before starting his Brand Spanking New Career as a professional Cat Herder and Rodeo King.

“I can go get some in a little while,” I say.

“Good, because I never leave the house anymore,” he jokes.

Probably that’s because it’s darned cold out there. Or because he doesn’t have to go anywhere. Or something. I can relate to this. I’ve worked from home for almost 10 years and I’ve learned a great deal about social contact – or lack thereof – because of it. Even though I have natural homebody tendencies, many’s the day I have felt on the edge of going stark raving if I didn’t get out of the house right! this! minute!

My mom stayed at home with my brother and me when we were growing up. As I got older, I remember marvelling about how incredibly disorganized she was. After all, she went out every afternoon to the store and bought just a few things. Why on earth wouldn’t she just make a list and get it with her big shopping order once a week?

I get it now. She needed to get out of the house and get some fresh air and talk to people. Probably that is a big reason why my brother and I are still alive today.

This sounds like a crazy thing to say, but I realized early on it’s surprisingly hard to stay home. Even before I had kids some days felt terribly long and lonely and I missed the daily interaction with coworkers at ye olde Perth Courier.

It doesn’t help that the nature of the freelance beast tends to be feast or famine. Things are darned groovy when it’s busy (unless it’s insanely busy, which presents different challenges), but the quiet times were a big adjustment. I stopped short of taking the quiet times as a personal slight by the Fates, but some days I had way too much time too think. Not only am I getting better at determining when my busy season is and isn’t, but my ability to relish the quiet has improved. Calling it “vacation” has helped.

When Boychild was born in a cold, snowy January, you’d think all my natural homebody instincts would kick in. In fact, I was more compelled than ever to follow in my mother’s footsteps and hit the sidewalk almost every day, unless it was really REALLY cold. I hauled that stroller over snow banks and through slush and driving snow, with Boychild warmly cocooned and protected by a plastic shield. I’m certain it was good for both of us.

That daily excursion is a Huge Big Deal in terms of strategies for surviving working from home with small children in the house. Whether it’s walking Boychild to and from school or heading out on foot to do errands with Girlchild, it not only clears the head, it allows you to experience the weather changes so you can gripe about it with the first Canadian you encounter.

When something prevents me from getting out, such as a sick child or hurricanes or pianos falling from the sky, I start to get a bit twitchy. That’s true even if there is lots to keep me busy at home.

Don’t assume being cooped up is an automatic recipe for getting more things done inside – such as cleaning. This may sound like some sort of crazy-brained excuse, but I honestly believe when you’re stuck inside too much you stop seeing your immediate surroundings. Go out for a while, come back in and voila! Look at all the dust, cat-hair tumbleweed and clutter! Somebody should really do something about this.

Speaking of Groom-boy, since I started writing this epistle he has gone out to get milk. Maybe he’ll start dusting next….

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Past Deadline: I'm Spellbound!

We're well into Week 3 and no casualties yet! I've only gritted my teeth a few times. Here's the scoop published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, Feb. 17/09. Oh, and for Derek, the world tour will stop at Numogate, too.

I’m spellbound!

Groom-boy has been home lately and it’s kinda cool! He’s taking some time off before he starts his Brand Spankin’ Shiny New Career as the host of the next reality TV sensation: So You Think You Can Shovel Canada. It promises to be spellbinding. Auditions start in June.

He’s also keeping busy organizing the logistics of the 2009 Past Deadline World Tour (complete with stops in the stadiums at Maberly, Watson’s Corners, Ompah and Port Elmsley). Stay tuned for widespread media coverage of that event – which also promises to be spellbinding.

Best of all, though, is that when Groom-boy is home, I have a dishwasher. According to some, my house is firmly entrenched in the dark ages because we don’t have a handy dandy electronic appliance that cleaneth thine dishes. In fact, when we stayed at a cottage for a few days last summer, it was a little unnerving to find one there in the boonies. Remarkable machine. Spellbinding, really.

One reason for our distinct lack of dishwasherness (aside from some possibly misguided arguments about energy and water waste) is that I’m almost positive I would have a nervous breakdown over the amount of cupboard space we would lose in our little kitchen if a dishwasher were to appear. Seriously, I’d rather do the dishes by hand than have to figure out where to put our re-usable containers and mixing bowls and cookie tins.

The existence of the physical appliance is beside the point anyway. What really makes for a happy and successful marriage is having another person around who is motivated to actually lift the dirty dishes from the messy table and ensure they are, somehow, cleaned – be it manually, mechanically or by cat. (I’m kidding about the cat. We had to stop doing that after we learned Buster is diabetic.)

The first week Groom-boy was home I experienced Four! Blissful! Days! of not having to wash a single, solitary dish. He just did ’em. It was fabulous. Spellbinding! The second week the ratio dropped to about 50/50, but I can live with that. It’s still better than going solo because the spouse is working all day and some evenings, too.

This amazing new experience doesn’t stop with the dishes. He’s been doing a lot of the laundry, too. (We have one of those handy dandy electronic clothes-washing thingies – we got rid of the washboard last year.) There has been vacuuming completed without my input or supervision as well. This is just grand!

Now, I don’t intend to make it sound as if certain folks who live here didn’t ever contribute to the household chores before. Indeed, all sorts of fantastic things got done on a regular basis. What’s different, though, is that someone is around to help with things that are normally on my to-do list.

As you can imagine, this feels like a vacation! I could get used to this live-in domestic and child-care provider thing. I mean, I was actually able to make an appointment on a weekday to get my hair cut and I didn’t have to drag any children with me! Amazing! Flexibility is an astonishing luxury.

I have got to be careful, though, not to get too used to it. After all, once his Brand Spankin’ Shiny New Career as a brain surgeon begins, Groom-boy will be busy busy busy. Since he was taking some time off first, though, there were bets taken – at least unofficially – about how long it would be before Mom Ineeda felt compelled to send Groom-boy away to do things at a place that was not in this house, such as Tibet.

So far, so good. After all, it hearkens back to the three-plus years when we not only lived together, but we worked together as reporters. Nobody died then!

Others have suggested if I am worried about too much quality time with Groom-boy, then I could work more. It’s a novel idea, if it weren’t for the fact I work at home in a Les Nessman office that has no door, let alone walls.

You’ll understand if I show up at your house and ask to use your computer though, right?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Brightening Up the Page

Thought it was time to add some pix of the short people....

Here are Boychild and Girlchild in Ottawa at Winterlude. Yes, we celebrate winter - at least outwardly.

Here is Boychild sledding at our local recreation park.

Here is Girlchild with a cookie her friend gave to her. Yum!

My brown-eyed boy, just before his seventh birthday.

And, of course, the dancing diva, just before her very first dance class! Don't let that face fool you...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Past Deadline: When Divas Go Dancing

Clearly Girlchild's occupying lots o' space in my brain these days. Here's the latest account published in The Perth Courier on Tuesday, Feb. 10/09.

When divas go dancing

Naturally, as Mother of the Year, I’m always looking for good threats to use in order to quell bad behaviour around the house. It’s a fine art, you see, because you have to be darned sure you are ready to follow through on said threat before issuing it. For instance, threatening to remove all chocolate from the house would be just, well, silly. Mom Ineeda needs her chocolate, after all.

Boychild has always been fairly responsive to threats to revoke privileges. Generally, the possibility of losing computer time for a few days, for example, is enough to stop naughtiness in its tracks.

Girlchild? Not so much.

I am developing a depressingly large repertoire of threats and admonishments for use upon Miss Diva McDivaness, who is apparently going through an endless “phase” right now. Despite the fact her tantrums over minutiae can be enough to send a frazzled parent stark raving, I’ve gotta give the girl points for decisiveness – not to mention persistence. Where I’m all Libra and have trouble making up my mind about things, she knows what she wants, when she wants it, how often it should happen, who should be wearing what when it happens, what the weather should be like and which planets should be aligned, thank you very much.

If she doesn’t get it just that way (which happens more than she would like because, darn it, we’re not bowing to pressure from a three-year-old and sometimes the planets just won’t cooperate), screaming and flailing and gnashing of teeth will follow (by her and sometimes by me).

Sigh. It’s good times. Truly.

Here’s an example. We’re at Nan and Grampy’s for a family dinner. We’ve had a lovely afternoon and supper. It’s getting fairly close to home time. Her Divaness requests apple juice. Well, we’re all out of apple juice – wait until we get home.

This. Would. Not. Do. She falls to pieces.

“What is this about?” her aunt innocently asks as Mom Ineeda (Valium) sits with a screeching Girlchild in a chair to try to navigate the storm.

“There’s no apple juice,” Nan explains.

Well it all makes sense, then! This is truly an International Incident of Epic Proportion! Somebody call the U.N.!

The storm raged and died and peace soon returned to the valley, despite the fact there was no apple juice and no one intended to drop everything and rush out and buy some. This is the kind of thing that happens in DivaWorld.

There has been a subtle change, though, a tiny shift in the stormy wind that I am (fingers and toes crossed) hoping is perhaps a sign of some sort of latent maturity just waiting to erupt and show its beautiful sunny, happy, smiley, contented, non-tantrummy face.

We call this wondrous thing “dance lessons.”

Since mid-January, Girlchild has been getting decked out once a week in pink (imagine!) tights, a pale blue bodysuit and an enormous grin and we set off. She and a roomful of girls get an hour of ballet and tap and I get to have a coffee and chat with grown-ups. Hurrah for dance lessons!

Best of all, she loves this time so much that the threat of cancelling a session is enough to stop a tantrum before it starts. I can actually hear the little hamster turning the wheels when she contemplates something she has done and how it may lead to the consequence of Mom Ineeda phoning “The Dance Lady” to inform of her impending absence from class.

Recently she made the mistake of jumping on her prone brother’s back when he wasn’t expecting it and, after appropriate apologies and forgiveness was dispensed, she approached me twice to quietly emphasize she “didn’t mean it, Mom, and I apologized and…and…can I still have my dance lessons?”

For many reasons that was a sweet moment! Maybe, just maybe, it was a breakthrough. For now, as the Terrible Twos morph into the Will-This-Craziness-Ever-End Threes, I have to remember some of the very good advice I have been given by friends recently: “Stay the course,” “This, too, shall pass” and, my favourite, “Brace yourself for when she’s a teenager, honey.”


Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bedtime Stories

Girlchild and I were cosy on her bed looking through books tonight when it occurred to me today was a good day.

Me: "Hey! Girlchild! I just thought of something!"

Girlchild: "What?"

Me: "You were a very good girl today! There was no crying or screaming. Thank you very much for being such a good girl."

Girlchild, usually quite gracious with compliments, contemplates this: "I don't like being a good girl. I like crying and screaming." She grins a little.

Me, not overly surprised: "Oh, but Mommy doesn't like the crying and screaming. It makes Mommy cross." Going again for the positive reinforcement: "You were a good girl today. Thank you!"

Girlchild, grinning and (I'm not kidding) tossing her blond locks: "But I like crying and screaming." Three going on 13.

Me, vying for the Mother-of-the-Year prize: "Oh, well, if you're going to cry and scream then maybe I should just go and stay somewhere else where it's quieter."

Girlchild, without missing a beat: "Okay."

Me, feeling the love: "But who would cook you supper?" (Perhaps not the best motivator to use, since it's the meal least likely to be eaten on any given day.)

Girlchild, thinking for a moment: "Um, Daddy."

Me: "Well, who would read you bedtime stories?" (Again, not a great motivator since Girlchild prefers to read stories to me lately.)

Girlchild: "Daddy."

Me: "Well, I think I would like to stay here with you if there's no crying and screaming."

Girlchild: "If it makes you cross, then maybe we should make a tent for you and you can go there when there's crying and screaming so you don't hear it."

Me, thinking this might not be a bad idea if it weren't the middle of winter: "Maybe we should put you in the tent if you're going to cry and scream."

Girlchild: "No, we will make the tent for you and it will be quiet. You can go there and not hear it."

Me, laughing: "I think I'd like to stay here with you."

Girlchild is prepared to run the household, actually. The other day she was pitching a fit moments before it was time to go and pick up her brother from school. I had my winter gear on and was ready to go, but Mars and Saturn were not aligned so she was having no part of the daily journey with the snowpants.

So I said, "Okay. You stay here by yourself. I'll be back later." (Yes yes yes...Mother of the Year.) I went out into the sunporch, closed the inside door and rattled the back door to make it sound as if I had left. Then I stood in the quiet and waited for the wail. Her brother would have lasted about 10 seconds before bursting into the sunporch to catch up to me.

But there wasn't a sound. Was she quietly weeping into her blankie? Sobbing by the window, watching for my retreating form? I went back inside. No, she was quite fine. She had turned on the television and was searching through her videos, preparing to kick back and watch a kiddie flick while I was gone.

I almost laughed. I'm sure I was smiling. I didn't tell her I was impressed with her courage - as a child I would have been the one screaming into the sunporch like her brother. Instead, I gathered her up and we proceeded, albeit unwillingly, with Plan A.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go look for my tent.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Non-Memory

When I think back to my childhood, one thing that really stands out is a memory I don’t have. I don’t remember doubting my parents. Well, at least not before I was a teenager. What I mean is I always felt safe and secure, as if I were permanently tucked into a cosy blanket. If my parents ever had doubts or fears about what they were doing to raise me, they hid it well.

This is a memory – or non-memory – I would love to instill in my own children, but I question whether I can pull it off. Every day I have doubts. Every day I wonder if I am doing the right thing or enough of something or too much of something. Have I let the kids watch too much TV? Are they eating well enough? Getting enough exercise? Did I say the right thing? Should I be more worried about Boychild’s worrying?

Sometimes I cannot even conceive of the fact that I have been left responsible for these two souls, to guide them into adulthood, to help them be good people, to make them strong and healthy and confident. How did this happen?

Well, I know how it happened and I wanted it to happen and I’m glad it happened, but honest to Pete if I think too much it overwhelms like a foggy night. There is so much information out there about doing “the right thing.” You want to make wise and informed choices about being a parent, but you could honestly spend more than half your life researching the answer to questions that many people take for granted, such as vaccinations or enrolling in French immersion or eating peanut butter.

So you end up going with your gut and trying to be confident in the conviction that your own parents raised you well and, as a result, you will make good choices. And that’s all well and good until you are blessed with a child whose picture can be found in the dictionary beside the words “temper tantrum.” Even though you’ve read the books and flipped through the websites, there just isn’t really a simple way to quell these little storms that rise and blow and ebb. Corners and time outs and naughty spots and removed privileges and big hugs and yelling and threats about finding oneself in a snowbank – there is no magic answer.

Do they see it when I am at my wit’s end? Will they look back and have the same wonderful non-memory that I have? I just don’t know.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Past Deadline: Who Is This Strange Woman Writing?

Here's the latest column, published in The Perth Courier on its new day and time: Tuesday, Feb. 3/09. This piece may mean more to folks who have been reading the paper for years and who are used to me using my maiden name. Anyway, here 'tis!

Who is this strange woman writing?

I changed my name. Did you notice?

I changed it almost 13 years ago, but sharp-eyed readers may have spotted it for the very first time in this space last week. I snuck it in there.

I’m a Libra. I’ve come to understand (perhaps incorrectly) that this makes me indecisive. Whether that is truly a Libra trait or not is irrelevant – the point is I often waffle. (Maybe I should have researched that Libra angle a bit more. Oh, it probably doesn’t matter – the point is I can be indecisive. But the research might have helped. Or maybe not. I dunno.)


Anyway, when Groom-boy and I got married I struggled over changing my name. On the one hand, I was born with the name “Strachan” and, in addition to familiarity, identity and the pride of ancestry, it also comes with rampant and persistent mispronunciation issues. It’s Strahken, not Strawn. I grew up in this small town but, no, I’m not Bob-the-former-county-engineer’s daughter (although they’re lovely people, those Strawns), I’m John-the-former-conservation-officer’s daughter. We’re also lovely people.

But I digress.

My married name, Gray, is rarely mispronounced but is frequently misspelled. Despite this it fits nicely on most signature lines, which is a bonus. Hyphenating the two names was rejected due to the sheer number of letters. My arm would get tired just thinking about signatures – and don’t think I didn’t practise before I decided.

So, I went with tradition, at least in Ontario, and changed my name. Legally, at least. The Grays, after all, are also lovely people.

A way back when I got married I still worked at The Perth Courier. In those days, the newsroom consisted of three people: Groom-boy and I were the reporters and Maureen Pegg was editor. Those were heady days, but I digress.

Adding to my indecisiveness was the fact I thought it might look funny to have so many Grays writing for the paper. That would be misplaced nepotism because Groom-boy had nothing to do with my hiring, nor any perks of the job.

Ultimately, Strachan stuck around professionally. As a reporter I was Strachan. When ordering pizza, I was Gray. As a result I lurked around town wearing a trench coat and dark glasses. Naturally. I’m not the only one who does this (I mean the name thing, not the lurking). Another columnist in these pages uses her maiden name professionally. Together we sneak around the community, completely incognito because of our tricky names in our columns. Oh. Except for that whole photo-in-the-paper thing.

Understandably (perhaps), when I left the paper a few years later to pursue Great Writing Dreams, I didn’t know who the heck I was. I’d be hired to do editing or writing jobs with no by-line and I would default to Gray – the legal name – because that’s who got the cheques.

Eventually, the only place Strachan appeared was on my column. I started thinking about throwing Gray into the column header a while ago. I was talking to some of my Algonquin students, who know me as Gray, about my column. They had read it, but didn’t realize right away it was me (the picture musta needed updating).

I did some research because I am vain – I mean, um – because I am thorough about everything except astrological signs. I Googled my two identities to see what appeared. The Stephanie Strachans, apparently, are quite sporty, with several pages of stats popping up. That is definitely not me. The Stephanie Grays, according to Google, include a significant pro-life advocate and a bunch of athletes and artists. Punch in Stephanie Strachan Gray and up near the top of the list is my blog. Phew! I exist!

I pretty much forgot about the name thing until last week when Groom-boy ended his time as editor of the paper to embark upon Great Astronaut Dreams – or something. “Hey!” I thought. “The Age of Nepotism That Wasn’t Really Nepotism is over! I should change my name and move past the identity crisis.”

It seemed like a logical time, and so I did it – sort of. I’ve just added Gray to it (without the hyphen) so’s not to confuse my millions and millions of fans. (Brother.)

I didn’t change the column photo – baby steps, right?