Internet Explorer users may need to widen their browser windows to span all three columns. Or download Firefox.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

Pinning it Down

I will be surprised if any of the four or five people I know to regularly visit this blog had the fortitude to read my 2,500 word essay on wealth (below) all the way through even one time, let alone go back and notice I keep revising and reworking it. I'm getting closer, but am still not satisfied. It's preachy and pious in places. There's a paragraph or two that needs to be cut altogether. There are gaps that need filling. Writing about such a (ha-ha) loaded topic makes it even more strenuous, because I am having to weigh my anxiety over pissing anyone off (if it ever sees the light of day) against my need to write with honesty and integrity.

Lately it seems like the harder I work on my writing, the harder it gets. The bar keeps going up.

And this year, I have been working hard.

I was at a particular stop light one day last spring where I seem to come to a lot of critical junctures in my life. I was at one then. I remember realizing I was thirty-five years old and I had spent enough time being afraid of becoming a writer and what that life might demand of me. Somewhere recently I had hear the quote, "Don't die with your music still in you," and I couldn't seem to make it stop echoing.

I gripped my steering wheel in both hands, and said, "Okay. Bring it on."

Shortly after, I was invited to work on an essay collection with a group of friends that has been like what I imagine boot camp is for the Marines: gruelling, bonding, exhilarating, muscle-building, ego-crushing....hopefully, better smelling. Staying with it has really tested my commitment to writing. How badly do I want it? What am I willing to risk for it? How tired, how selfish, and how honest am I willing to be for it?

Sounds joyless, doesn't it? It's not. Along with all the blood, sweat and tears, it's been immensely rewarding and even (at times) fun. This weekend we are going away to try and whip a final draft into shape, and if we never find a publisher, I am proud of the work we've done.

But it's an odd craft, this work of trying to pin words onto ideas and feelings. Sometimes you get it right, and the finished product captures what was fleeting. Sometimes you butcher it all to hell.

I've been reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which led me to read her brother-in-law Dominick Dunne's new book The Way We Lived Then. Both books are almost painfully candid, but not tainted by exhibitionism, like so many contemporary memoirs. That's a pretty good trick, to hang your stuff out there, and not leave your ego out there with it. That takes real discipline and craftsmanship, and I wish there was a way to acquire those skills without the process of trial and error.

Until last year, I guess I was still thinking there might be; that if I just hung out in my cocoon long enough and did nothing, the music in me would just burst forth fully realized someday, and I would never have to risk making mistakes, never hit a sour note, never mix and mangle my metaphors. :)

Perhaps I should I avoid that stoplight from now on.


this post lives all by itself here

Friday, May 26, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,


Yesterday morning my graduating first-grader put on his private school uniform for the last time this year, and though he doesn't know it yet, the last time for the foreseeable future.

Last week we got the official letter from the school's financial aid office, and while the news was what we expected, it wasn't the full scholarship we needed. Even with the 50 per cent reduction we've been getting, we've never really been able to afford the monthly tuition. And although Patrick's new freelance gig is already bringing in more than what he earned at his corporate job, cash flow is still nail-bitingly erratic. Over the past eight months, a private school education has migrated from the "do not touch" column, to the "luxuries we can no longer justify" side of the ledger.

Mostly, I am okay with it. Placement in our neighborhood public school is highly coveted. I have been approached twice by people outside the district wanting to "borrow" our address to get their kids in. We already know lots of the families whose children go there, and I want my boys to grow up feeling connected to their immediate community, not always being chauffeured out of it.

I tell myself to think of it as a trade-off, not a loss. Now that we are off the corporate grid, my dream of spending summers in Newfoundland is not as far-fetched as it once seemed. Time is our own, and one year’s tuition would easily cover airfare for all five of us. In terms of an education for the children, that beats private school hands down, in my opinion.

Still, I am a little sad. My son's two years of private schooling have been idyllic. He has been so happy and nutured there, and I don't have the heart yet to tell him that he is not going back. What the school lacks in diversity and excitement, it makes up for in warmth and security. Back when we were first wringing our hands over schooling options, I wondered if the environment was too sheltered, too controlled, too unreal. But on days when I could gaze out my office window and watch my son skipping safely across the immaculate school playground, surrounded on all sides by an elegant wrought-iron fence, I would think maybe shelter is a good thing when one is very young and the world is very large.

But then, not everything I worried could hurt him was on the outside of the fence.

Few other middle-class kids attend his school. There are some, who are there because of their religious affiliation, or whose parents are two-income earners who simply rolled over daycare fees into private school tuition, or whose grandparents are footing the bill. But by and large, the students come from the city's wealthy elite. A memorandum in the school handbook obliquely reminds parents to refrain from sending limousines for the children on their birthdays. My son’s classmates spend spring break at luxury resorts and theme parks; summers at beach or lake houses. They have soda machines in their bedrooms and pools in their backyards. Yesterday he attended an end-of-school swim party held for his entire grade at the country club.

My son seems to have been oblivious to all of this so far. He looked just as much at ease in the club pool as he does in the community one we swim in. Since he started kindergarten, I have watched vigilantly for the first signs of self-consciousness, of any perception of lack, poised to put material wealth in perspective for him.

I am supremely unqualified for this. My own attitude about money could best be described as a writhing snakepit of neuroses. These issues have been with me since childhood; growing up, there never was quite enough to make ends meet, let alone overlap. My dad was suspicious of wealth and those who held it. It was the seventies, in Canada, and socialist ideals were still very much alive. I grew up believing it was a moral defect to have more than what you needed to get by.

"There is enough for everyone's need," said Gandhi, famously, "not for everyone's greed." As I received this ethic, the emphasis was all on "greed". The "enough" part didn't register. This makes for a nice cocktail of anxiety stirred up with guilt and self-reproach. Oh, and a twist of bitter.

Since moving to the United States, I have an abundance of opportunities to work on this particular corner of my belief system. I have been here ten years now, and how much people have is still staggering to me. Maybe I would have an easier time with this if it weren't offset by how very little others have--right here in this city, never mind across the globe. Until I came here I had never known so many people with trust funds and maids and fully appointed vacation homes. Until I came here, I had never met anyone who involuntarily lived without electricity or running water or health insurance.

I have a hard enough time making sense out of this for myself, let alone explaining it to a child. Once on the way home from school, my son wanted to know why he couldn’t buy his lunch at school everyday. I tried talking to him about how different people do different kinds of work for different kinds of pay. I explained that Daddy and Mommy could have become doctors or lawyers and made more money than we do as a graphic artist and writer, but that we probably would not be happy doing those things, and wasn’t it so much better than a hot lunch everyday to have a Mom and a Dad who were happy and fulfilled and had more time to spend with their children? Then I had to account for doctors and lawyers being worth so much more than artists and writers. Except his grandmother, who, granted, is a lawyer, but chose to defend poor people and not make a lot of money. Which brought us to the whole question of inherited wealth.

“Why didn’t we go to med school,?” I said to Patrick as I hung up my son’s backpack. “What were we thinking?”

I have a number of friends and acquaintances I consider economically privileged. I know that each and every one of them, like me, tries hard, means well, and hopes to get out of here without inflicting serious harm on anyone. Some of the wealthiest people I know are also the most generous; and from time to time, my children and I have been the grateful beneficiaries of this. Do I really believe that the extra resources they have means somebody somewhere else has less? I try not to.

Zero-sum thinking, in which there is a finite quantity to go around, is frowned upon here. A whole theology and industry has sprung up in recent years to make everybody feel spiritually okay about making money, and I try hard to get on board that train. I say mantras like “money is just energy” and “it’s what you do with it” and “the universe is abundant”, but I guess my lack of conviction weakens the signal I am putting out because I keep repelling wealth, not attracting it. When a little money does come my way, it is as if I have been contaminated with a corrosive substance, and I must be cleansed of it as quickly as possible. This is not a mentality I want to pass down to the next generation, anymore than I want them assimilated into the culture of consumerism.

As with everything else in this country, it is hard to find the middle way.

A few years back, a friend invited the children and I to be her guests for the Fourth of July celebrations at the country club. We had a wonderful time, and I sincerely hope they will let us come back again, publication of this essay notwithstanding. There was a magician and a juggler and a man on stilts dressed as Uncle Sam. There were elaborate inflatable tunnels and trampolines. There were white tents and buffet tables draped in linen and silver wine urns on the bar. Everyone was beautiful and smiling. No-one seemed sweaty or rumpled or cross. After the sun went down, there was a private fireworks display above the golf course that easily rivaled the public pyrotechnics downtown. I felt as if I had entered a secret and enchanted world.

My grandmother Mary would have said, I was "in the fairy." The day had that hypnotic, surreal quality; a midsummer night's dream. From the slope of the fairway, the river and the city below were framed in perfectly, like a classically proportioned painting. It was a point of view I had never seen before and one the majority of residents of this city will never see. It was stunning.

It occurred to me that for many of the people there, this was the world they lived in. This was how one usually spent the Fourth of July. I wondered what on earth would ever propel any of the people there to seek out an alternate perspective. I thought how hard it must be to bring up children in that world, where the answer to "can I have" could always be "yes, of course" and you have to come up with reasons why not, instead of the answer being a simple statement of fact. I left that evening with a new respect for my friend—and anyone else acclimated to that lifestyle—who manages to stay even remotely in touch with broader reality.

I was also aware that I too am privileged in my own way, because I can come and go from the fairy and they belong to it.

Last night, my son came to me and asked if we could order some collectible plush toys, his latest passion. You can just get them on the computer, my son told me, confidently and expectantly, his friend did. I looked at my beautiful child, freckled from his afternoon at the pool, and thought how I much I want to give him everything. I know that if money were no object, I would have been hard pressed to resist that impulse. I would have waved my magic wand and bought him the whole damn lot just to see his pleasure. Presto. As it was, I smiled and told him it would be a great thing to save for.

It would have been easy to feel sorry for him, and for myself, especially on the heels of the letter from the financial aid office and being between accounts receivable right now and down to pilfering quarters out of the loose change jar. Patrick's billing has gone out, and checks will start coming in, and the sky isn't about to fall, I know, but we are feeling just a little vulnerable.

I needed a distraction, and one that didn’t involve a credit card. So I brought the baby upstairs and sat with him in his brothers' room, playing with toys. Almost absent-mindedly, I started sorting through old puzzles laying strewn about. I started putting them together to see which had missing pieces and could be thrown out. Then I moved on to the toy basket, filling a laundry hamper with giveaways. One thing led to the other like that, until I could see all the extra stuff in the room that needed to be let go. I posted a notice on freecycle and we had our five dollar Friday night pizza and walked to grocery store for popsicles. When we got back, I checked email and read carefully through the dozen or more responses I already had to my offer of toys and clothes. I wrote back to a woman who sounded like she had the most urgent need, and told her to come and pick them up anytime over the weekend. I felt rich. I knew I had exactly what I needed for the day, and then some.

I looked at my boys, delighted with their 25 cent popsicles, the coveted toys forgotten about for another day. I thought about the kindergarten classmate who came to our backyard campout last year with his new video game still in its wrapper and who was horrified to learn we were going to eat hotdogs off sticks. I remembered attending a friend's booksigning a few month's ago, when an anecdote came up about another writer. "Well, you know she's never had to want for anything," somebody remarked. This was understood by all present as a handicap, a condition for which to make allowances. I thought about some of the people I've met whose lives have been messed up by too much or not enough money, and I felt suddenly, extraordinarily lucky. In a world of extremes, how easy it would have been for fate to overshoot and plant us at one end of the scale or the other, but we get to be right in the middle. To have just enough.

I wish I could occupy that place of gratitude always. I wish I wouldn't be insecure and grasping and envious, (although I will likely be again before the day is out) and I wish I could teach my kids how not to be those things either. I don't know if more money would insulate us from those feelings, but I am afraid of what else it would keep out, or trap in. I know as long as I remain frightened of wealth, I will probably never achieve it, but maybe I'm okay with that. Maybe it's better for us not to wander too deep in the fairy, to lose our way dreaming the American dream.


this post lives all by itself here

Monday, May 22, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

A River Runs Through Me.

While Patrick and I were busy producing an astonishing number of offspring in a stunningly short time, we let some things lapse. Like recreation. This was partially due to having used up all our time, energy, money and good looks on procreating.

But it also had to do with overspecialization. Our former recreational repertoire, based exclusively on alcohol, was ill-suited to keeping dairy products viable, let alone children.

The party had to end, and did. But we had nothing to replace it. Turns out the jovial go-along guy I married was actually an introvert once you took the drink out of his hand. For fun, he likes to sit in the dark. Myself, I am an outdoorsy, extraverted gal. I like to be outside engaged in group activities with the kids, a hundred of our closest friends, and their kids. And preferably, an interesting dress theme.

You see the dilemma.

Recently, we have really been trying to find our way to some sort of middle ground. Witness our recent camping trip. I resisted the urge to turn it into a multi-family caravan; and Patrick resisted the urge to stay at home and sleep in a real bed.

Whereas camping will always involve several weeks of advance negotiation, however, fishing is showing a great deal of promise as a potential shared passion. My paternal grandmother and father were avid fly-fishers; and I have been feeling the need to take the boys fishing for a couple of years now. Last month, I borrowed a couple of spincast rods from the local library and threw them and all three children in the van to go try our luck at one of the stocked city ponds, leaving their Dad sitting happily in the dark. A couple of hours later, I came home defeated and near tears. Trying to rig three poles and teach two kids to fish while keeping the two year old out of the pond had been a circus act. I was exhausted and frustrated, and Patrick saw that it really mattered. "We'll all go next weekend," he promised, and we did.

What happened next was he wound up catching some bass, and remembered that fishing was fun. Also, he went to the tackle store and discovered the endless array of gear to be acquired. I went online and on tivo and to the library and discovered much research and list-making to be done. We began looking longingly out the window in the mornings, just *knowing* that somewhere, fish were biting.

Sunday I caught my first fish since I was eleven years old. Back then I used to fish with worms for brook trout. That day I hooked a small one and tore it up badly trying to release it. I didn't even think about fishing again until after my Dad and Nana died. Mom sent Dad's good flyrod and reel down here last summer, and I will get serious about that when the baby gets a little older, but for now, spincasting will serve as my re-entry level.

I was really ready to catch something, too. After weeks of thinking and reading and obsessing about it, not to mention buying a LOT of gear; I hadn't had even a good nibble. I had been casting for over an hour out on the pond, and still nothing, although a bass had practically leapt into Patrick's arms his very first cast.

I was beginning to think I just didn't have it in me. So I looked around at the blue sky and the sparkling pond and the green, green trees and I took a long breath and I said a little prayer. Thank you for the beautiful day, I prayed. Thank you for my being here with the people I love best in all the world. If you want me to, please, let me catch a fish. Then a little gear somewhere in my dna chain clicked over, and I felt myself shift out of all the thinking and obsessing and information overload; and I went someplace deeper and older and fishier.

When my lure hit the water, I could feel that fish coming up on it. When it took the lure, I knew, without knowing, exactly how to play it. It was a gorgeous longear sunfish ( not the bass in the photo); and bringing it in was more thrilling than anything I've done in a long while.

I was initiated. After that, they just kept coming. After a while, I quit counting. Some largemouth bass, a lot of bluegill. We let a bunch go; and kept some nice ones for supper.

My seven year old brought in a three pound channel catfish on a bamboo cane with a bobber and shrimp and his pleasure was as pure and elemental as sun on the water.

I don't know if anyone but hunters or fishers will understand what I mean by saying how connected I felt with the fish under the pond after my brain got out of the way and my instincts kicked in. It was like I had done some kind of mind-meld with the fish, who of course, was also hunting. There aren't really words to adequately describe it, but the feeling carried into cleaning and cooking and eating the catch. Not to over-romanticize a simple day of fishing on the pond, but it was kind of sacramental, in its way.

My Dad and my grandmother Mary were both poets and both had more than a touch of the shaman about them. I always thought that fishing was something interesting they pursued tangentially to those roles; now I know it was perfectly in line with them, one fluid arc, me and my sons part of it.

filed under: goodtimes, friendsrelations, soulspirit

Labels: ,

this post lives all by itself here

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

A Slice of Alright

What is it about camping that makes me so goofy with happiness? Is it because I get to obsessively pore over inventory lists, itineraries, menus and maps? Is it because it makes me feel resourceful and skilled beyond words that I can percolate the perfect cup of coffee over a coleman stove? Is it because I get to eat Spam, without shame? Is it because when I sit around a campfire with my little tribe and gaze up at the stars it feels like everything is okay; that we are all together down here in our little raft, drifting safely and steadily toward home?

As my five-year old said to his older brother on the drive home, "I know the secret. Well, my heart knows it, not me."

Labels: ,

this post lives all by itself here

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

What it Takes:

Packing List for a Two-Night Camping Trip

Clothes Per Camper:

3 sets underwear
3 pr socks
1 long pants
2 short pants
3 t-shirts
1 fleece or hoodie
1 raincoat
1 hat
1 pr sneakers
1 pr water shoes
1 swimsuit
2 pjs
1 towel
2 washclothes

Diaper bag:
one dozen diapers

Mom’s bathhouse kit:

hairbrush and comb
nail clippers
pre treated disposable washcloths
bug spray
itch cream
Tylenol kids and adult
laundry soap
contact lense stuff & glasses
Mom’s face lotions & potions
Hair tiebacks

Pantry kit:
(refill or launder on return)

Trash bags
Ziploc bags
heavy duty foil
Paper towels
Dish Soap
Pot Scrubbers
salt and pepper
powdered milk
citronella candle

Camp Kitchen:
(in Rubbermaid boxes)

tablecloth & clips
camp stove
clothesline and clothespins
cooking pots and pans
eating dishes
cutlery box
pie irons & skewers
coffee thermos
wastewater bucket
handsoap and bungee to hang on tree
2 Coolers with perishables and beverages
Dry foods box.

Picnic Table Activity:

camping diary
markers & paper
card games
suduko/crossword puzzles

Batteries & Fuel:
propane for stove
self-light briquettes
fatwood or firestarter
D batteries for lantern and airbed
A batteries for tent lamp & small flashlights
C batteries for flashlights & radio

(to bundle in tarp)

Tent & fly
tent broom
tent lamp
lantern and flashlights
Screen House
Sleeping bags & liners
air mattress and sleep pads
comforter for under bed
comforter for over bed


phones & camera (charge batteries)
First Aid Kit
Cds for the road
Fishing Rods & Tackle
one knapsack of chosen toys per child
swimming toys and floats
Christmas lights, extension cord if electric hookup
short-length garden hose if water hookup
heater or fan if called for

And finally:

duct tape.

filed under: goodtimes
Technorati Tags:

Labels: ,

this post lives all by itself here

Friday, May 12, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

Gone Fishing

We are going fishing and camping, thanks to Mother's Day leverage. Two adults, three children, one tent and an airbed.

Check back after the weekend to find out if we survive.


this post lives all by itself here

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

She's Crafty

Okay, this post will be the fluffiest yet (well, maybe since the foodie posts of Christmas past), but I just had to show off my rainy-day handiwork. Big shout-out to the writer of this tutorial , Miz Deborah.

Grade Eight Home Ec, thou hast served me well.

Grade Ten Trig, thou werest ever a took me nearly 30 damn minutes to figure out the correct radius for marking out the waistline of a very pretty circle skirt. I think it was the first occasion I ever had outside the classroom to use Pi.

This DIY site was most helpful. Thank heavens somebody was paying attention back then.


this post lives all by itself here

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Thanks for visiting. I am no longer updating Notes to Self. I hope you'll join me on my current website,

In my face.

When Patrick left his corporate job and went freelance, we lost our medical insurance. This was no small anxiety trigger for me, a Canadian raised on stories of how uninsured Americans, denied treatment, routinely bled to death in emergency rooms. Fortunately, our state has a very good medicaid program for children, and our kids were able to get on it after a couple of months. The plan is extremely comprehensive, and as much as I want Patrick to make money hand over fist his first year in business, I will be sad when we exceed the income threshold and get booted back out into the private system.

Even dental care is covered, but not through our beloved family dentist, who keeps a small, genteel practice in the upper class neighborhood known loftily as The Heights. So when the boys check up came due, I made the appointment with a pediatric dental clinic who takes medicaid patients.

Remember that until I moved to the U.S. at the age of 26, I had never seen a medical bill. Everyone in Canada, rich or poor, receives "free" medical care. I don't naturally associate public health insurance with a particular socio-economic group. So I was completely unprepared to spend three hours in a waiting room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with poor people and their children.

Let's say it was what my girlfriend calls an AFGO: another fucking growth opportunity. You could also say that I had to spend three hours face to face with my own prejudices and hypocrisy. I'd rather have been in the dentist's chair all that time, with no anaesthetic.

If you have met me in person, or have read more than a couple of entries on this blog, you have most likely inferred that I am a good liberal. As a matter of fact, I was raised a good socialist. (By way of creds, just this morning my mother emailed to tell me that Canada's new "conservative" Prime Minister has instituted annual payments of $1200 per child to parents to help out with daycare. My mother was wrote "how insulting" it was--daycare costs at least twice that amount!) I am also a Jesus-loving, Bible-reading, church-going Christian. Some theologians believe that Jesus had a preference for the poor. That always made sense to me. It only stands to reason that people who had little or nothing to lose are going to be more receptive to the Good News (which to a middle-class gal like me sounds like Somewhat Worrisome News, and I'm guessing to a rich person comes across like The Chaos and Anarchy Tribune).

But as I sat in the waiting room chair, trying to quell a rising panic attack, I thought, surely Jesus was hanging out with a different class of poor people than I was surrounded by at that moment. Surely, his poor people were hip, articulate, college-degreed and socially-conscious, like the poor people I am friends with, who could have been stock brokers and corporate attorneys if they had so chosen, but decided instead to be artists, or stay at home parents, or embrace some other countercultural vocation. Surely, Jesus wasn't talking about the poor who are stressed out and strung out, trashmouthed, tacky and ignorant, hitting and screaming at their pitiful children incessantly--surely not those poor, who were stuck with me and my silent loathing in that horrible waiting room.

Crap. Now I have to go back and read all the gospels again, recasting the extras so they have mullets and are screaming, "Sit down or I'll whip your ass" to their fat children while Jesus is trying to talk.

Sometimes growing spiritually is fun, like being able to reach the cookie jar for the very first time. Other times it's more like waking up to a face full of pimples.

Please pass the Clearasil.

soulspirit, money, fearloathing

Labels: ,

this post lives all by itself here