Fairy tales

I’ve been reading Fairy Tales to the kids over the last week or so – these are Brothers Grimm from when I was a child so it lacks idiosyncratic sensitivities that are always present in Disneyified crap. Last night we read Brarskin, a vivid tale where a man sells his soul to the Devil for seven years in return for unending wealth; the catch, and it is mighty, is that he may not wash or comb his hair for seven years.

That’s a tremendous amount of time for grime and hair to build upon your face, your nails growing to grotesque lengths. He acquires himself a wife, one who is simply too innocent to say no when her father offers her to the beast man as a gesture of thanks – and of course, she is beautiful.

Fairy tales are wonderful cautionary tales – great public service announcements for soap, too – but they serve multiple duties. They are so outlandish and caricatures of real life that as a non-religious family it can put so many stories of extraordinary into perspective.

A man swallowed by a large fish; more Biblically correct than to describe it as a whale, is about as plausible as the Devil appearing to a man and buying his essence of self before he has a chance to starve.

There is this ridiculous notion that children of non-religious families can’t possibly have an understanding of morals because they don’t have The Bible, heaven forbid. Morals are taught around dinner tables, in the interactions between family members. “What do you think about that?” is a question I often ask the kids, because it’s all well and good to wag a finger and tell them what is right and wrong, but they need to be able to figure it out themselves.

A list of rules is obviously a good place to start, but kids – and adults – need reasoning skills to figure out the how and why of what makes an action or belief right or wrong. It is entirely far too easy to do harm – out of cowardice, prejudice or rebellion – because it is something we just shouldn’t do because we’ll get in trouble; however, if we can develop the understanding that harming another is wrong because we don’t want want to be treated that way and all beings, human and otherwise, deserve to live without harm from others then the impetus to not do wrong to others becomes that much more poignant.

Fairy tales have these grand punishments for evil-doing. The first thing N asked about Cinderella was how could her father allow the evil step-daughters to treat her so poorly. I don’t know the answer to that, it isn’t evident in the text but it also did not seem fair that Cinderella’s father was banished from the kingdom for his role on her abuse. This was N’s second question, how could he be banished, he is Cinderella’s father. In short, even though her father allowed awful things to happen to Cinderella, N saw space for some sort of resolution.

Fairy tales provide another space for discussing, dare I say, so many issues that it seems like anything and everything with kids.


In the shadows: Plato’s Cave

The first day I got lost. The University of Windsor was not a huge or complicated campus but negotiating buildings with official names while trying desperately to not actually look like a first year student, and no doubt failing miserably, meant that I scuttled into my classroom in Dillon Hall minutes after everyone else had settled in. Across the room I could see the only other Philosophy major for our graduating year, the rest of the seats filled with kids looking for a breezy elective.

In the first weeks of Classical Philosophy we tackled Plato’s Republic, the heavy existential tomes saved for later in the semester. Philosophy, like most classes in Arts and Social Sciences were shuffled off to the older buildings which lacked amenities like air conditioning, reliable lighting and windows that stayed open without pieces of wood wedged into the frame. September in southwestern Ontario is warm, hot even. The return to school is a cruel joke, considering most students continue to wear semi-beach wear to class.

Our classroom was The Cave. Students facing forward, a scattering of rich kids sat defiantly behind clunky laptops and we listened to Hans V. Hansen cast shadows to tell us the truth. Our desks could never be the ideal desk because they could only exist out there, in the ether and this was only a mild approximation. Not even a good one at that but shhh… It was the truth. The truth is on the wall until the Philosopher King sees the light that makes the shadows and knows, the chains, the desks that hold us there are of no consequence and he (or she – the Philosopher Queen) escapes and seeks a purer truth. The real truth that speaks not of lies.


At 19, the Cave Allegory, with it’s chained inhabitants facing while only the bravest of souls dragged themselves from the darkness, was intoxicating to me. I’ve told the story countless times to my kids, the cave is now a movie theatre and the escapee goes on to great adventures. It’s been a while since we’ve visited the cave but I think it might be time again.

Yesterday, I tweeted to Mary Lu (@HalHum101 – she does amazing work) that the Cave Allegory was a story often told to my kids, to which she replied, “Who do they think is chained in the cave?”. And I stopped. I don’t know. I’ve never dwelt on them and even when I think of the cave, I don’t tend to consider the people who are trapped in the cave of shadows because I love the trek of the Philosopher King, the power in escaping. Because to me, the Cave Allegory is about beating the odds and seeking knowledge – because you know it must be there, waiting to be found.

But, there is that pesky question of The Prisoners, those who are forced to believe that the shadowy life they lead is truth. We know these people. We are them. Even those of us who think we shun it, that forced doctrine of wayward “truth”, in what way are we prisoners of our own ignorance? In what ways do we keep our children faced forward, never peaking for the light?

The obvious answer, for my family and me, is that we are non-religious (my husband and I are atheist and we are raising our  children without dogma). However, there is a huge, glaring BUT with this situation – as part of the western tradition, just about every single cultural tradition, piece of literature, music, philosophy, everything is heavily impacted by The Bible. Thus far, Mr and I have largely stayed away from Bible stories in a bid to simply not deal with dogma but, we have inadvertently chained our children in our own  cave. To understand Western cultural traditions, they will need to know the stories from which they derive – seriously, try and listen to Bob Dylan or read Mordecai Richler and understand them (beyond the surface).

The power believes infuse into The Bible comes from the rhetoric that surrounds the text and that part of it? As parents, it’s up to us to determine the rhetoric and in order to ever call bullshit, the kids will need to know the stories the shadows are telling. It’s like watching a movie with the sound off.

On writing and a whole bunch

The piece I am working on and have been picking at for about two weeks now is still in scribble, I’m in love with this character stage so I don’t want to focus too much on how much I love it but there is a little sprig of something in my mind about it.

This is writing. You can see it and know it needs something – in my case, I want a fantastical yet oh so ordinary element like Tom Robbins’s spoon and can o’ beans; but figuring what that something is, well that’s difficult. I don’t want it forced because it will just end up being useless drivel, but it’s just right there at the edge of fingertips.

How much of life is like that? Not just writing life, but actual breathing and taking space in the world Life. Right now, post degree and baby I’m trying to figure out what I am doing with myself on a professional level. It’s right there, at my fingertips, what I’m trying to figure out but actually grasping at it? Well it, whatever it is, just keeps squirming away.

In writing, like in life, I think we may force too much, push too much for that perfection that may not be our own sense or definition of perfection and before you know it, time has passed you by and yet … And yet. It is striking that balance between acknowledging your responsibilities to others (I have a million kids) and my responsibility to myself and to ensure my own happiness. It’s striking a balance between sacrifice and self preservation.

The path of development – for myself and my writing. It’s a funny thing.

book review: ScreamFree Parenting (Hal Runkel)

I recently read Scream-Free Parenting by Hal Runkel, a marriage and family therapist in Atlanta Georgia. I think mparenting books are valuable in that they can prod you into insightful dialogues, to question yourself and the path you are currently on. I don’t think any one book is The Answer and it would be insincere to think there is only one way to parent.

As for the methodology. Runkel advocates what I would call self-care. Taking time for yourself and your adult relationships (with your partner, family and friends) are so important – if you cannot take care of yourself and show your child(ren) it is important to do so, you will fail them and yourself. There is also the problem of what Runkel calls “reactivity”; this is the emotional reaction to an event, say your kid going batshit crazy because she can’t find pants that match her shirt. Instead of yelling at her that it’s because she won’t open her drawers and look and will instead ALWAYS rely on you to get them, stop that thought process and consider what is happening. She is not doing this to annoy you (really? Because it seems to happen every morning), rather she is a kid and reasoning is not her forte. You, as her frenzied parent, are there to help her develop the tools that will aid in her growth towards adulthood. Like the ability to find pants.

I found some of Runkel’s proposed phrasing, for example, “if you don’t put away your bike, tomorrow morning I will take it to Goodwill”, to be passive aggressive if put to use for every little thing. As parents, we are to guide our children into decision making as much as it is to establish rules for the house and the expectation that the children will follow said rules. It is not specifically that Runkel is saying to hell with household rules, it’s more that his methodology and phrasing would be daunting and irritating to use all the time. I think the calming moment to consider what is happening and choosing your words wisely (to not make the “always” accusation), to not dissolve into reaction (read: freaking out) is most valuable during crisis mode. If this is not terribly clear it is because I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt some unease at Runkel’s suggestion that his layout is for all the time. Remember how I wrote that parenting books generally have some good tips you can add to your repertoire? This is one.

He writes of the importance of a child’s space. A few years ago, at about the time N started school, I started knocking before entering her room or the bathroom. The danger of her eating something like laundry detergent was lessened at this point (chill, it was always put away), but I thought it important she learn boundaries around her body. That and she was finally getting that she should answer when I knock on the door lest Mommy freak out. Runkel points out the importance of allowing a child their space – if you respect their’s, they are much more likely to reciprocate. He is also under the impression a kid will want to clean their room because they’ll take ownership over the space and like it more if it is neat but I don’t entirely agree – N is not an organized kid but D is and that has more to do with their individual personalities. N needs more prodding to clean up after herself and organize her things. Thinking your kids will clean their room rather than pull a Jillian Jiggs is some serious wishful thinking.

As for Runkel’s writing style – it’s somewhat cutesy self-help which I can deal with because he doesn’t really lay it on too thick and he provides some real-life examples from his family therapy practice. He keeps referencing make-believe ScreamFree books that are in the future and I don’t know if he’s being serious or ridiculous because the joke doesn’t carry very well. The title is definitely loaded – I was definitely not toting this around, flashing the title because it is so sensationalistic (Canadian moment here – how American is the title, eh?). Runkel does address the title – “screaming” is more about the loss of control parents face than the actual volume and his aim in writing the book is to help parents be the calming force in their family.

birthdays, goals and another year

Your birthday marks the beginning of a new year for you. Forget New Year’s resolutions. You have to share the energy and the general crappiness that comes with others knowing your goals (or sharing in the chutzpah needed to carry them through and that’s exhausting and ultimately defeatist) because you went and drunkenly made these resolutions that are just absurd come the light of another day. But, with your birthday, the impetus to establish yourself is yours alone (save for all those other people who share your birthday – like Milton Berle or Bill Cosby). Forget New Year’s resolutions, everyone makes those just to break them.

Your birthday is yours, a new beginning and you can embody that smidge of new wisdom you have by revelling in your new number and the newness of the year. It’s like buying a new pair of sparkly sneakers and the promise you make to never, ever get them dirty. That first puddle you step in is going to be hard, but that’s part of living and you’re trying.

I am 30 now and have been for a couple of days. I have two children with another one one the way and it’s high time that I grow up. Establish some goals and do the things I’ve always said I would do. It’s the beginning of a new year and it’s all mine.

My 20s were altogether tumultuous and a mixed bag of what can only be described eloquently as, WTF. Like most of the nerdy, booky types of the world, there has been The Next Great Idea banging around in my head for the last couple of years and it is ridiculous to just keep it all tucked away in my grey matter. It’s just brain shenanigans, really. I’m not going to mess around with bold proclamations of publishing by my 31 birthday because I believe it will be a great accomplishment just to get the damn thing finished by next year, but there you have it.

Happy birthday to everyone else who shares my birthday.

a month-long awareness extravaganza

May is Speech and Hearing Awareness Month. It’s also Sexual Assault Awareness and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. I understand the initiative behind awareness days and months, it gives educators and regular people a reason to talk about different issues and keep them in the forefront, but if you listen to incredibly loud earphones, park in dark alleys and bake yourself to a crisp every other month of the year, the point of May’s awareness initiative is lost. Those promises you make to yourself and your family needs to carry through for the rest of the year. Not just today or until the end of the month.

The true intent of these awareness months is that we make life changes and sometimes those are really difficult. Do you know what else is difficult? Coping with hearing loss. PTSD from a sexual assault. Chemo. If that feels extreme to you, life is extreme. We all have this concept that it could simply not happen to me, it’s someone else’s problem. Well, sometimes it’s not someone else’s problem. Life is not a feel-good, inspirational movie starring Queen Latifah and Ryan Gosling’s ex-girlfriend.

I have written before about what it was like to learn Boy has unilateral hearing loss and it does not change who he is but it will have a lasting affect on his life. Roadie for a metal band is not a viable career option for him, not unless he wants to expand that hearing loss to both ears. The precautions we take with protecting his hearing (watching for signs of infection, keeping noise at an acceptable decibel) are actions we should all be taking. Once you lose your hearing, it’s not coming back, not without some very serious intervention. Be wise about it.

a life well lived

Yesterday, I read this story about a woman who vanished from existence, the lives she lived and the people she knew. It is as if she did not die suddenly or without warning, she simply ceased to be and though people wracked their brains, their memories and even their journals, there were countless people who simply could not remember seeing her pass from living to the count of dead. There is a tremendous amount of sadness in Joyce Vincent’s death, the fact that no one knew she had died and had instead imagined her off somewhere living an extravagant life and chasing after dreams, does this mean that she was not really dead until someone knew? Floating in an existential soup of BBC 1, old washing and 3 year old yogurt. She lived on in some way because the people who knew her believed her alive but that knowledge was nothing but a lie.

In this time of gross communication (obviously, not disgusting but tremendous), it seems so… inconceivable that a person can just disappear and no one noticed. It’s not like there were reports of her disappearance, that someone cried at night because they did not know where she was, what she was doing. They simply didn’t know so the believed her alive. It begs the question, if you have all the means of communication, besides the obvious telephone, does it really matter? That smart phone at your hip, with its insistent red light or flashing icon to signify that someone in the world is looking for you, does it matter if you are so isolated that the phone ceases to be?

To all appearances, until she vacated life – I have difficulty using the term death in relation to Vincent because she simply ceased to be, like an Olympian god whom no one believes in so she fades into nothingness, Vincent lived a full life. Friends. Wild experiences like meeting Nelson Mandela, lovers. Somehow, it wasn’t enough. The cause of her death is unknown. Fitting to the death she experienced.

She was young, only 38 at the time of her death. She did not outlive all the people her life accumulated. I originally set out to write about quality of life and the fact that it in so many ways our obsession with the length of one’s life overshadows a life well lived. As though finally succumbing at the age of 97 after 30 years of sickness and heartache is a triumph. My father died young (it’s interesting what we consider young), at the age of 65. He had sworn his entire life that he would live to 68. It was just the way it was supposed to be. When he did not fulfill that promise, I was stunned, as though he could somehow fulfill his macabre promise. I   have an idea that age does not matter, that clocking in time at a cosmic punch clock is not quite the same as big “L” living.