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Describe the Invisible in 15 Minutes or Less

It’s one of those weeks. At last count, I had 8 appointments scheduled, with only one of them for me, and that’s not counting each kid’s dentist appointment as a separate thing. For a girl who gets anxious having to be anywhere at a specific time, this ain’t my best week. But it happens that way sometimes – the usual weekly meetings (psychologist, occupational therapist…) are piled on with occasional ones. It makes everyone touchy – the boys are out of their routines (never good) and half the stuff is miserable anyway (read: dentist).

As an added bonus, this week is also Parent Teacher Interview time at both Liam and Finn’s middle school, and Rory’s school. I know there are some parents out there who look towards that 15 minutes neutrally, even happily: a little progress report, a chance to hear a few charming anecdotes from the child’s teacher, a chance to find out what exactly the kids have been doing every day besides, “Nothing, mom”.

I, on the other hand, spend the week or so before the interviews cramming: reading books, making notes, devising strategies, and washing down ibuprofen with red wine.

To be fair, Liam’s is usually relatively straightforward. He’s a great student: enthusiastic, bright, hard-working. But Finn and Rory both have challenges that, while obvious to everyone around them, are understood by sometimes no one.

This afternoon, I got an email from Finn’s French teacher. We’ve never met in person, but she and Rob met briefly at the beginning of the year. Then a couple of weeks ago, I got a phone call from her in the middle of the day, with Finn at her side. She was apparently at her wits’ end about how to deal with Finn: “He’s not doing his work in class, and I know he can, and he won’t, and it’s do INFURIATING,” and on and on. I empathized – this is an old issue with Finn, and one with needs a lot of active managing. We resolved to communicate more often about Finn’s participation and his work, and she seemed calmed. Since then, I haven’t heard from her, but I have been asking Finn if he’s making more of an effort in class; he’s said he was.

Then I get this message: It starts, “I blew up at Finn today” and kinda goes on from there. Apparently, not for the first time, Finn became vocally upset when he entered the computer lab with the class and found someone sitting in “his” seat. The teacher, having already told Finn that they did not have assigned seats in computer lab, lost it, and her note tells that she’s been over this ground with him before. I could picture it perfectly – Finn fixating on the issue of his place (his chair, his zone), and her trying to teach a lesson. She said she thought Finn had understood “weeks ago” because she had told him that, unlike when his homeroom is in computer lab, she does not use assigned seats with them. So after the blow up, she had Finn sit away from the rest of the class and write a letter to her stating he now understood the policy of the lab. She also wrote on the letter that she would try to listen to him when he had something to say, which I admired.

I’m the first to admit that Finn can persist with an issue he’s wrestling with, perhaps beyond what seems reasonable to me, or in this case, his French teacher. But Finn is not stupid; he is not deaf, nor thoughtless, nor confrontational, nor intentionally disruptive. In fact, he is startlingly bright, amazingly perceptive, extremely sensitive, and by far the most even-tempered of my children.

But he IS AUTISTIC.

He copes beautifully – in fact, he amazes me every day. I could go on for pages about how self-aware Finn is becoming, how much he tries, how little he shows what challenges he battles EVERY SINGLE DAY. But he does battle, and by the time he comes in the door at 3:45 or 4:00 he’s exhausted from negotiating the outside world for 8 hours. If he coped less well, maybe it would be more transparent. As it is, I’m pretty sure most people who deal with Finn on a daily basis don’t have any idea how differently he experiences being in the world than they themselves do, or than the kids around him do.

He’s developed incredible passing skills, but he’s still who he is. And honestly, if Finn wants to sit in the same place for French class every day, what the hell. Go ahead, I’d say. It’s one of those things that would make his day, his place, out in that big wide world seem more controlled, more familiar, more HIM. And those touchstones are few and far between for kids like Finn.

So I’m going to keep this post short(ish), and draft an email back to the French teacher. It’s going to thank her for the note, express my gratitude at her patience, and sympathize with her struggles to get the best out of what she knows to be an imminently capable young man. But it will also suggest she and I meet soon, so we can talk about how to look a little differently at the Difficulties and Challenges she sees, in light of some things she might not understand about Finn. It’s one of those talks Rob and I have had countless times with other teachers, with friends, with doctors, with drama teachers and camp councilors and other kids’ parents. But it keeps needing to be said, because no matter how many times someone hears the words autism, or Asperger’s syndrome, they aren’t necessarily closer to understanding my kid. As one of the presenters at the Geneva Centre Conference said repeatedly last week, “If you know one kid with autism, you know one kid with autism.” And no matter how smart they are, how well they dress – and Finn does dress really, really well –  no matter how funny or articulate they are, they are also coming from such a different place that you or I can never really understand. But we can try. And more than that, we can acknowledge, and then accept.

You’ll Know Where to Find Me in Fall 2012

On November 3rd through 5th this fall, the Toronto-based Geneva Centre for Autism hosted it’s biannual symposium on autism. It was held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and attended by over 1600 delegates, presenters and experts from all over the world.

Including, for the first time, me.

As the first day is mostly for professionals, the bulk of the conference unfolds over two days. It starts at 8 or 8:30 in the morning, and the last session of the day ends at 5:00. The breaks between sessions are just long enough to find your next room, use the loo, and buy a bottle of water. At the end of the two days, I had spent more than 8 hours in sessions, and taken 50 pages of single-spaced notes on binder paper. 50. Pages.

Not a single word was extraneous.

In short, it was extraordinary. It was overwhelming, and exciting and humbling and intense. Throughout the two days, an almost palpable sense of urgency and connection permeated the speaking halls and common areas. The majority of the delegates. Parents of kids on the spectrum from high-functioning and verbal, like Finn, to those struggling with non-communicative children who aren’t speaking at kindergarten age or higher. There were whole delegations of teachers, occupational and speech therapists, psychologists, and other professionals who work with these kids, and everyone – all nearly 2000 of us, were so desperate to learn, to share what little we know, or how much we know, that you could almost see sparkling currents of electricity flashing from head to head to head.

I will write so much more about this, I promise. But at this point, I’m still trying find my feet again. Processing all the information, all the mind-stretching new perspectives and fire-under-the-bum-lighting strategies feels nearly impossible still. It feels like trying to find a lone dime in a bucket full to the brim of pennies and nickels and quarters and not being able to dump it out to look. Head. Too. Full.

Choosing which session was excruciating: “What if I miss something REALLY IMPORTANT?” Originally I reconciled my difficulty by telling myself I could always stay for part of one session, then leave and deke into a concurrent one to get a little of both. The fact is, I’d be surprised if anyone at the whole conference did that; each session I went to was so riveting, I couldn’t have pulled myself away if there’d been a fire alarm.

Those of us who were there for our own children naturally approached each speaker, each session from the perspective of that child, with his or her specific strengths and needs. And, naturally, I thought often of Finn, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was seven. But I also thought – tremendously – of Rory.

Rory doesn’t have an autism diagnosis per se, but I’m sure not ruling it out. And regardless of whether or not he meets exacting guidelines for a specific diagnosis, he suffers from many of the challenges of children on the spectrum, from overwhelming sensory processing difficulties, to many of the same issues with social dynamics and change. And I thought of him constantly.

I actually laughed out loud when I first walked into the exhibitors’ hall: several companies who sell sensory tools and toys had set up big colourful displays of their wares: squeeze balls and fidget toys, weighted bean bag animals and stretchy bands, squishy clay and soft blocks. I laughed, because in a nutshell, those are the only things Rory plays with. He carries a bright yellow tool box to school every day FULL of just those things. I recognized his world all around me.

Friday evening I made my way to the subway, for home. It was already dark, and I was laden down with stuff: my book bag, purse, an umbrella, a large wooden box containing an art game for Rory, and oh yeah, a shiny five-pound stuffed lizard, who utterly resisted being forced down into the small-ish bag I’d taken from the conference. I took the skywalk to Union Station, subway to Queen, and wedge myself into an east-bound streetcar, along with everyone else and their Aunt Maude. (It was 5:30 on a Friday, after all). The streetcar shook, and I stared at the painted-on eyes of the blue gecko, and tried to calm my stomach, which was rolling. But three stops short of my block, I had to get off. My head was swimming, my hands were shaking… I tucked into Starbucks, ordered a lemonade with extra ice, and sat in the darkened window for a few minutes. Breathe, I thought, just breathe. But all I could think was of the words and the voices of the people I’d spent the past two days with. It was like I’d been immersed in a parallel world where children like mine were understood and thought beautiful, and I was being torn out of it, back to earth. Snippets of the sessions fought in my mind for space, swirling and pressing up against my eyes and the back of my throat. And before long the tears were flowing (again).

Finally, I gathered my bags, my box, and my lizard, of whom I have to say I now felt distinctly fond, and walked home in the dark, teeth chattering the whole way. Over the next hour, I was in the bathroom three times (forgive the bluntness).

I was overwhelmed, and am still. But in the best, the most rare, precious way. I came away feeling, for the first time in I don’t know how long, energized and positive, and even excited. Sure, I had to restrain myself this morning from busting down the door to the principal’s office at Rory’s school and renovating the way the entire educational system is run, but y’know, one thing at a time.

For now, I’m waiting for the delivery of a book I ordered first thing Saturday morning. It’s a book for kids on how to draw, and I got it for Rory, who loves art more than anything, but is also a crazy perfectionist, and hardly draws anymore, because he thinks he can’t. I got the name of the book from a fantastic woman who is a speech and language therapist to kids on the spectrum, and who sees kids like Rory all the time. I can’t wait to show it to him.

And that’s really it – she was just one person amid 1600, but we got to talking, and she KNEW WHAT I MEANT. She knows kids like Rory, she gets them, and she values them, and so does every other person who was there over those two days. More than anything, that’s what blew me away. I expected to leave the conference enthusiastic about ideas, even armed with a few new strategies. But I never expected to come away feeling honoured. Honoured to be among such remarkable human beings, and mostly, honoured to be the mother of such remarkable children.

The next Geneva Centre Symposium on Autism is in Fall 2012… No question, you’ll know where to find me.

Boots

There is just nothing like a kick-arse pair of great boots. Really. I know women who really dig a sweet pair of flip-flops, and I personally have a (ahem) slight shoe thing going on. (Have you seen my masthead?) But as far as pure, direct delicious girl power, there is no more direct mainline than boots.
I wear them nearly exclusively from late September (the day I can no longer in good health wear sandals) to May (when I can wear sandals again.)

I can remember every great pair of boots I’ve had since high school, and kept most of them until the guy at the shoe repair place started just asking me to go out and buy new ones. “WE CAN’T FIX THESE ANYMORE.” There were my fabulous lace-up granny boots on which I had the heels replaced three times, and the sole four… I still have these beautiful saddle-leather high-heeled boots with blanket stitching up the front and back, which are older than my children, but which I only wear twice a year because at some point they’re just going to fall into the pattern pieces they’re made from, right there, off my feet, out in the world somewhere.

And now, there are these:

Aren’t they SO PRETTY?

I know. (And yes, they do look better on my foot than a blank page, but neither of our cameras likes me these days, so I’m giving them a wide berth.)

They’re also unreasonably comfortable. I’ve worn them for FULL ENTIRE DAYS, and not needed to take them off the second I’m in the door, much less while I’m still on the streetcar.

Is this all a bit girly, a bit superficial? Sure. Will it lead to world peace and put an end to  climate change? Not likely.

But when I’ve got these on, I feel fabulous. A great pair of boots should make you feel like taking kickboxing AND shaving your legs. And that feeling, sweeties, is pretty hard to come by.

On the Difficulty of Torch Passing

Liam’s tics have been getting worse. Not like all-of-a-sudden today kind of thing, but relentlessly, creepingly. There were whole years when we hardly noticed them. Long stretches when we were really the only ones who recognized a throat-clearing as a tic, or a foot tapping, or a neck craning. Stretches where teachers and family would comment enthusiastically – and sometimes a little as though we’d been making the whole thing up – that they couldn’t detect any tics at all.

But they were there all the same; docile perhaps, manageable, easily absorbed into the energetic carriage of an eight- or nine-year-old boy.

They would flare, two or three times a year, usually early fall, and Christmastime, and most boldly in the early spring, always accompanied by a spike in the other challenges that makes Tourette’s so fierce: temper, poor impulse control, heightened anxiety, and high frustration. The best analogy we found was the moon cycle: Sometimes the tics and temper were only thumbnail moons, but the cycle always rounds back again and at some point the full moon time comes, and things get really hard.As far as tics go, some are more or less omnipresent; some come and go: a day, a week, a month. Some only crop up in very specific situations: Liam used to slam his head into my shoulder when we were sitting beside each other on the couch. When one shoulder was bruised, we’d switch sides.

When the tics did flare, we’d do the best we could to make sure everyone in Liam’s life knew what they were, knew he couldn’t help them. Rob and I became experts at explaining Tourette’s to school teachers, swimming teachers, family members, a Karate sensei, and a host of strangers in cafes, parks, theatres and bookstores. Twice, I even went into Liam’s classroom and explained tics and TS to his friends.

As kids grow, as they approach puberty, the periods between full moon phases shortens, and the phases themselves take longer to abate. About a year and a half ago, give or take, we kind of stopped being able to distinguish between the good times and hard times. The tics were worse, the anger, frustration and impulsivity felt constant, and Liam continued to beat himself up about all of it.

Tourette’s generally peaks around age 12; Liam is 11 1/2. We’ve been expecting this, I suppose, though I’m not sure what that means. Hard is hard, and when you’re living it, it’s pretty much impossible to contemplate getting through worse.

These days, Liam’s tics are obvious. Not obvious like an awkwardly placed mole; more like a fire alarm or someone throwing up on your couch. He still has the stepping and stomping ones he’s always had, but they’re stronger. He has a whole menu of things he sometimes has to do with his hands, some of which hurt: think of biting your cuticles times ten. He’s struggled with a few different bite-related tics for months: pressing his front top teeth against his front bottom ones until his gums hurt (he’s often scared he’s going to lose his teeth thanks to this); biting down hard and loudly over and over; and easily the most disturbing to be witness to, grinding his teeth. It’s so loud I can hear it from the next room, and it seriously makes my skin crawl. He has a tic which makes him throw his head to one side quickly, and at times hurts to the point of tears.

And then there’s the snorting tic, which first appeared only months after he was diagnosed, and lay dormant, but which has moved itself right in now, thank you very much. It’s a loud, often repeated, forceful exhalation through his nose, and a really great imitation of a large, angry bull. My dad thinks Liam could have a great career in sound effects and voice work. Trouble is, it, like most of them, seem to get worse at those precise moments when the last thing Liam wants is to be conspicuous or annoying. Like a cafe. Or school.

Or archery.

The tics start to escalate when we leave the house to go to the range twice a week, and by the time Liam starts building his bow and warming up, he’s clicking, clacking, grinding, twitching and snorting all at once. It’s all tied up in anxiety – of doing well enough, of feeling uncomfortable at one of the two ranges we use, of being too tired. And of course, it’s a vicious circle: the more Liam is worried about the tics, the more they happen. And you try telling an 11-year old boy in a room full of older teenagers not to worry about standing out and looking silly.

Trouble is, archery isn’t so much a loud, boisterous sort of thing as it is a zen, contemplative, TOTALLY SILENT one. “No talking on the line”, not to mention snorting loudly every four seconds.

Liam’s tics used to more or less leave him alone at archery. Even now, when he’s actually shooting he’s purely still; focused. It’s in the frequent down-times, the moments between arrows, or between ends (group of arrows) when he’s waiting for the other archers to finish before retrieving arrows, that the tics flare. They’re uncomfortable for him, and I’m not overstating it when I say they’re hard to listen to, even if, like me, you know he can’t help them.

We usually go early to the range, and only during the last third of Liam’s 90-minute practices are there usually a fair number of other archers. Archers on a line stand startlingly close; sometimes only inches apart, and each one is trying to drop into their own concentration zone, trying to block everything else out except their body, their bow, and the target.

SNORT. Grind. Clack. Snort.

The other day, I was reading on a little landing in the stairwell at the range, while Liam was shooting. He been up to see me on a break, and things seemed to be going pretty well. I had decided to absent myself from the immediate vicinity to try to let him concentrate a little more; it’s been hard to push through a practice lately, and he’s going to need to manage those anxieties himself if he’s going to continue.

Then all of a sudden, he’s in front of me, clenched, weeping, looking frightened and sorry at the same time. After a few minutes, I got out of him that a parent, not someone either of us recognized, had leaned in towards Liam between ends and asked that he stop making so much noise; it was disturbing the other archers. He had managed to tell her he couldn’t help it, but was too upset to hear her response. He retrieved his arrows, and plowed into the stairwell to find me.

I hugged him, and wiped the tears and after a while, he was able to calm down. But he was devastated; that damage had been done. I told him I’d go down with him, spend the last quarter of an hour nearby, and if I could, I’d just talk to the woman. He went to splash some water on his face and I took my seat behind the line. For some reason, the mother had moved over to the other side of the gym. When Liam came back, he was, of course, still ticking.  The boy on the target next to him glanced up, frowning slightly. And as the tears welled up again, I asked him if he wanted me to go and just talk with the woman who had commented anyway. He did. So I collected whatever courage I could find, and crossed the room. (Don’t we always want to think parents do these sorts of things unthinkingly, with no fear, no anxiety? We know better, of course. We’re just people, and approaching a perfect stranger to talk about something like them having scolded your son isn’t most folks’ idea of a casual chat.)

I waited for the woman to be done talking to her son, and then I excused myself into a seat beside hers.

“Hi,” I said, smiling. “I’m Liam’s mom, over there.”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m sorry. He told me he couldn’t help it. I was just concerned for the other kids; it was getting to them.”

“Yeah,” I said, “They’re tics. Liam had Tourette’s. Not the swearing kind, just the ticking kind. It really upsets him, too.”

“I totally understand,” she said. “I have a son who tics too.”

Seriously?

Well, yes, it turns out. A ten-year-old son, who is currently being seen by at least two different clinics in an attempt to figure out what’s going on. Another beloved boy who is struggling and whose parents are just trying to help him. The woman and I talked for the rest of Liam’s session, about clinics, theories, ages of onset, of just having boys (she has two). When Liam signaled that he was packing up, I thanked her, wished her luck with her son, and walked back over to Liam, whose face became more puzzled as I got closer.

“Well that seemed….to go…. um, better than I expected…which is weird…” he said with more than a hint of suspicion.

“Yes, it really did. Her other son has tics, Liam. She knows. She gets it.” I smiled.

All the way home, I felt elated, connected. I felt like posting that story on the blog immediately. “What happened tonight is exactly why I write about all this stuff,” I told Liam on the way home. “People all have stuff, all have challenges, and we can all understand each other, if we just communicate.”

But my warm glowy feeling was short-lived. As early as that evening, when the boys were in bed, I realized how hard it would be to bridge that same gap with the rest of the folks at the range, especially the other archers. Most of them are teenagers, older than Liam, but not so mature that they might have sons in the ballpark, if you get my meaning.

Rob and I actually sat there that night, and I did many more times over the next week, brooding over how to “get the word out”. I fully believe that if someone knows a) why Liam is, say, snorting, and that b) he really can’t help it, it honestly makes the tics easier to bear, even to ignore completely. Certainly, it would go a long way towards changing some of the other kids’ perceptions that Liam might just be an irritating and deliberately (or ignorantly) bothersome kid. It would help.

I came up with all sorts of ideas: emails; little note cards left on the table at the range; a quiet announcement when Liam was out of the room; enlisting the coach for help with disseminating the information… There were two things common to all the ideas I had: firstly, they all involved me doing the telling; and secondly, none of them would work.

The answer finally came to me on the day of our next session at that range, and I realized how the telling will have to be done.

Liam has to do it.

Not an announcement to the whole group, maybe. Maybe just one at a time, amid the busyness of pulling arrows or setting up, or changing ends. Maybe just a casual word with the one guy sharing his target: “Dude, I’m sorry about the noises. I have Tourette’s and can’t help it. It’s a drag, I know. They’re called tics.” And maybe soon, it will reach a  critical mass, and soon it will just be a non-issue in the club.

But it will, at some point, have to happen. Liam needs to feel part of the club, and the rest of the club has to know him. And the hardest thing, the hardest thing for me, is to know I can’t do it for him. I can handle the other mothers, the fathers, even the coach. But the kids? My time for being the go-between with them has passed. Now it’s up to my son.

From the Nerd Files

I’m on the computer the other night and Liam comes over to show me the latest Star Wars Lego set he’s made. It’s a walker, but don’t call it an Imperial Walker, because you’d be WRONG. Wrong, baby, and shame on you. I know this because I did it. I’m not going to tell you what kind of walker it was, mostly because I’m afraid of retaliation if I get it wrong again. So Liam’s explaining to me, patiently, like maybe I might be very very old, WHY this is a different walker. And he goes, “It’s non-canon, but they can’t make all the Lego to scale, so….”.

Now, I know what he means is that this little Lego model is not EXACTLY the same as it would be in the Star Wars ‘Verse. But “non-canon?” Dude, you’re eleven.

(I just coughed and it sounded a lot like *nerd*.)

This summer we were camping with about 30 of our closest friends, and at one point a pile of boys were mock battling in the middle of the field. I and another mom were hanging on the sidelines and all of a sudden, her son runs up with this ticked-off look on his face.

Her: “Hey. What’s up?”

Him: “I just don’t get it.”

Her: “What?”

Him: ” Liam and Finn! I mean, they’re kind of fighting, but I don’t even know what they’re SAYING to each other. Finn was just calling Liam all this …. stuff… and I don’t even know what the WORDS MEAN.”

Her: “It’s ok, dude. Neither do I.”

See? Nerds.

Ok: first of all, they TOTALLY don’t mind me calling them that. My older children have proudly cultivated identities which embrace the (many) universes of nerd-dom, and inhabit them glowingly. Case in point, last year, when faced with the prospect of hitting middle school this September, they informed me they had a plan. Along with their Brother-from-another-mother and classmate J., they had a fool-proof way to avoid being bullied in junior-high, in spite of already being “marked” by being in the Gifted Program: “We’ve got it. We’re going to be SO NERDY, no one will even WANT to bully us. It’s going to be awesome!”

Yeeaaaah. Keep me posted, I said.

Not-so-secretly, I’m fiercely proud of them. The fact is, in different ways and to varying degrees, both Liam and Finn naturally embrace much of the world of the Nerd: they read voraciously, they get really, really upset when people abuse grammar, they love learning, they love fantasy, Finn can do more on my computer than I will ever be able to, and they can tell you more about Star Wars than George Lucas. (No, seriously.) And they always have, way before they ever knew they might fit into an identifiable social category.

But in the last few years, as their own worlds have expanded to include, well, other worlds, they’ve realized there are tribes of other folks out there a lot like them; that they aren’t the only boys who argue the finer points of Jedi weaponry or bemoan the rampant misuse of the apostrophe. And I love seeing them come to the understanding that loving the things they love, valuing all that they do, can be super-cool.

It can, however, be really hard to understand them. You know, for us mere plebes. Dinner isn’t truly underway until one of them says something that Rob and I find hard to recognize as English. It’s a strange thing – but about two-thirds of the way through each meal, the conversation takes a definite turn for the ultra-geeky, and I just smile wanly and go back to my potatoes. It’s usually something like:

Finn: “I can’t believe Pony Lampshade died in the last Clone Wars episode! The Neurons should totally have reached him in time – they were even using their Flip-Wing Fighters! (Ok, I may not repeating this word for word. I may be paraphrasing a tad.) If the writers had just read the account of Blahblah on Wookiepedia (yes, I do mean Wookiepedia), they totally would have known that Pony Lampshade was giving information to the Whatevers, and ok, that may be non-canonical (Finn’s words) but it still makes more sense than killing him off  before the battle of Thing!”

Me: “Mmm. What good potatoes.”

The other day, we’re sitting there enjoying our pasta, and Finn’s giving us an alarmingly comprehensive review of the new Star Wars online game. Rob and I are really trying to listen and pay attention. We are good parents and we love Finn. Finn’s really happy because he’s just spent a large sum of his own money for a lifetime membership in the game, which entitles him to, among other things, what apparently amounts to better living quarters in the game.

Finn: “I get a HOUSE. It’s so awesome. I don’t have much in it yet, but that will come. It’s great, because before, as a Padawan, I had to sleep in the dormitories in the Jedi Temple, but now that I’m a Jedi, I have my own place.”

I try to repeat this. I am feeling happy that I have pretty much understood thus far, and I know in a few minutes I’ll be smiling off into space, so I’m chiming in now so I don’t look completely stupid.

“Soooo… As a Padawan, you don’t have a house, and as a Jedi, you do. ”

“Right,” says Finn, approving. I am so smart.

“It’s kind of like this, Mama: Think of the Jedi order like a Feudal system: the Padawan are like the serfs, and can’t really OWN property; the Jedi are the squires, the Jedi masters are the nobles and the Head of the Order is like the King of the Fifedom.”

I am not that smart.

Smart-ass kid.

I like him though. And the other one, too.

Shake it Sugar Baby

So there’s good news and there’s good news. First, the good: I’m going to be doing two more appearances baking from In the Sweet Kitchen on Cityline this fall! The first will air Monday November 1, the second airs Wednesday December 8. Hooray! Look for early Christmas things… I feel cookies coming on….

The second good thing is totally related, and I’m so tickled to have discovered it I could die. In the course of planning the first appearance, for the Monday (Around-the-House Day) show, I was emailing with Cityline’s intrepid Monday producer, Kate Moore. And we’re talking cookies and she writes that she wonders if I would mind wearing one of these aprons they’re hoping to feature on the show that day, to promote the start of their Holiday Cookie Swap.

Now, I don’t generally wear aprons when doing demos on TV, mostly because they make me look a bit like a potato. Also, the plain white ones make me look as though I work in a restaurant, which I definitely used to, but haven’t in forever, and I’m always worried about giving people the wrong idea. I know – I’ve thought way too much about this. Really, they’re just supposed to keep goo off your dress. Right?

Kate sends me this terribly deferential note along the lines of “If you REALLY wouldn’t mind… yadda yadda yadda…. VERY pretty aprons…. yadda yadda… Check out the website…. here are some I though would look great on you….” And my first reaction is, Ok, if I like them, well, maybe; and if they’re too, um, potatoey, then I’ll politely decline.

The company is called Sugar Baby Aprons, which is already a promising start. So I click on over to the site, and it takes me all of one second to realize that not only are they not tuber-like, they’re FAB! They’re divine. They’re so sexy and sweet, they’re more like sassy little demi-frocks than aprons. Instantly, I wanted ALL of them, which, I know, is perhaps a tad unreasonable. Though don’t pretend for a second that I didn’t very quickly mentally justify possibly buying one of each. But then I’d need matching shoes, and nail polish, and it just starts to get out of hand.

The thing is, they actually sell shoes… (I KNOW, RIGHT?) so the jury’s still out on the whole buying the lot deal.

I did, however, abuse the English language just a tad in my haste to write a note back to Kate saying, HELLS YES I’d love to wear one one the show, and if at all possible, could it be the full leopard print one? Because really, I have a bit of a thing for leopard, and honestly, once I saw that they even made one in leopard, there was no other choice.

So for those of you still here, on my site, I’m absolving you of your sense of loyalty. You don’t have to finish reading this. GO – go now, buy aprons. Buy the flirtiest one there, and when it arrives, put in on with your highest heels and your most encouraging undergarment, and bake something! Make cupcakes, make a pie, make chocolate chip cookies and eat the dough right out of the bowl. Because baking is supposed to  be like this: sexy, full-bodied, and fun.

Seriously? WORMS?

I have to tell you this story. I was going to tell you just after it happened, you know, in JULY, but then I remembered I’d have to anesthetize my children for a couple of hours in order to do that, and that is apparently frowned upon. So better late than never.

This summer, ostensibly for my birthday, but really because it had been about a hundred years since Rob and I had been away, overnight, together, alone, we did that. We went to Niagara-on-the-Lake, stayed in a bed and breakfast, saw a play, went to a few wineries. (Nice ones, actually, and tried some really lovely wines. It was kind of awkward though, because we’d spend half-an-hour with some black-clad tasting room guy, fawning all over the more expensive wines on the list. Then we’d be done, and there would be this tacit exchange: he’d politely leave us alone for a moment as he cleared the many (many) glasses, and we’d frown thoughtfully while examining the wine list, as if saying, “Hmmm. A case of the Cabernet would be good, and we should get at least a couple of cases of the Reserve… What have we got in the cellar already?”Really, we were pausing just long enough to pretend we were actually considering anything but the cheapest bottle on the list that wasn’t plonk. One. “One bottle, please, of that first one we tried. The one you said was a crowd-pleaser? Mmmm. Yep, I know we had lots to say about the Reserve Cabernet, but we just couldn’t get enough of that blend. Well, actually, one’s enough. Just the one. And a bag, please.”)

The town of Niagara-on-the-Lake itself  is almost ridiculously pretty: Queen Street, the main drag as it were,  has become so quaint it’s nearly impossible to buy anything other than trinkety jewelry, leather coats, jam, and those colourful flags with sunflowers on them for your porch. The area’s biggest attraction is of course, the Shaw Festival, but the Niagara Wine region and the town itself are close contenders. The region’s proximity to the US is also a big draw, and this summer in particular, I’ve never noticed so many American license plates.

Now Rob and I are definitely on the bottom end of most of the demographic categories for most tourists: we’re younger, yes, but also poorer and less traveled. But it’s ok – for a few days, we can blend.

Some, um, can’t.

Though we were very decidedly not there for the buying, there are a few shops we’ve always liked to check out, namely one called Irish Design. In fact, on one of those hundred-years-ago trips, we bought my engagement ring in that very shop: a simple, heavy silver Claddagh ring. I love it still.

You know the place, or you can imagine it: all rich woolens and tweeds, Fisherman-knit sweaters and racks of Celtic jewelry. It’s sprawling. There’s the Kids Irish Stuff area; the Women’s Really Really Fine Woolens section; the Women’s Slightly More Affordable But Not Really Section; the Irish Books and Writers section; etc. And naturally, the Guinness section. Guinness T-shirts, bottle openers, paper weights, glasses, etc. So there we are, wandering quietly around the place, this church to Irish Exports. And at one point, I become aware that there is a very large, ruddy-faced middle-aged couple in the Guinness corner, talking really, really loudly.

Him: “WHAT ABOUT THIS?” He holds up a Guinness apron.

Her: “NAH. MAYBE THIS?” She stands there turning a black Guinness bar towel over and over in her hands, scowling at it, as if she’s trying to figure out what it is. It’s very obviously a towel.

Her: “WHY’S IT SO SMALL?”

(Me, under my breath, four feet away, to the sleeve of a Harris tweed coat: “Because it’s a bar towel. For wiping a bar. Bar.”)

Him: “I DUNNO. NAH. THAT’S USELESS.”

(Me, to the sleeve: “Not for a bar it’s not…”)

They keep picking things up and frowning at them, and I’m trying to understand why they don’t just move to another area of the shop if this one is perplexing them so much.

Her: “WHAT IS GUINNESS ANYHOW?”

My head snaps up.

Him: “HUH? IT’S A BEER. A BEER, YOU KNOW…”

(Me, to coat: “Oh thank God. I was going to have yell at them.”)

Her: “WHAT ABOUT THIS?” She holds up a wall clock with a picture of the St.James Gate Brewery on it. I’m now confused about why they’re trying to buy something Guinness when they don’t even like Guinness. Or know what Guinness is.

Her: “OH WAIT!” She’s practically screaming now, not because she’s angry, but just because it was the only place left for her voice to go. I whip around as stealthily as I can, hoping to get a look at the souvenir that put her over the edge. But she’s forgotten about the clock. She’s standing still, with a look of dawning comprehension on her face, staring at her husband.

Her: “IT’S THAT BEER WITH THE WORM IN THE BOTTOM ISN’T IT!”

This is not a question. She has figured this out. It is a fact.

Him: “YEAH. I THINK SO. YEAH. BUT YOU DON’T EAT THE WORM.”

Her: “NO….NO YOU DON’T.”

Well, of course. Silly me.

And I’m standing there waiting for one of them to slap themselves upside the head and go, “OOPS! DUH! What were we thinking. That’s TEQUILA. This is BEER. Yummy, rich, foamy, dark, FAMOUS BEER.”

But no. No, they all of a sudden become really disinterested in Guinness Worm Beer, and disappear into the rest of the store. I don’t know if they bought anything, and I don’t care. Rob had to usher me out of the store because I couldn’t stop ranting in this evil whisper about Neanderthals and Tequila.

I did have a Guinness that night, and I enjoyed it LIKE CRAZY. I enjoyed it with spite and purpose, and it was good.

Oh, by the way, if you happen to go to the Irish store, don’t buy the size small Harris tweed coat. One sleeve’s all bunchy and wrinkly.

My vote’s still with Spring.

Oh, my BLOOMIN’ LORD. (And yes, I’m pretty sure the Lord is Blooming). Hello, internets, how’ve you been? I hope you all had a lovely summer, and dropped by occasionally between fruity rum drinks to check in. You know, to see my complete lack of posts. Those.

I do (and did, in my head, all summer) apologize profusely. There were circumstances. Like having three boys home all day… all summer…. with no babysitting. At all. Apparently I lost my mind a little, back when we were planning the summer, when I decided that they all needed a real break, and we’d eschew weeks of day camp in favour of being laisser-faire about it and being able to be spontaneous in our summer plans.

Out of my bleeding mind, I tell you. I neatly forgot that a) my kids hate spontaneity, and b) our house is very, very small, and c) SUMMER IS 9 WEEKS LONG. Day 3 of vacation and I was ready to do a dump-and-run at the nearest YMCA camp.

Actually, in many ways, we had a good summer, if typically challenging for us. We do a lot of little trips in the summers: a few camping outings, a few cottage visits with friends, lots of time driving around Toronto stuck in road construction or trying to find parking at Popular yet Educational Places like the Science Centre. The thing is, for my guys, pretty much everything brings on all sorts of weird stress, even the good things. Just going for ice cream is fraught with angst: I have to cajole Finn into actually leaving the computer; repeatedly reassure Liam that if we leave now (1:30) we will indeed be home before dinner (6:00), seeing as how the ice cream store is three blocks away; manage Rory just being Rory; not to mention trouble-shoot all the excruciating  ice-cream flavour selections. (Finn: “WHAT? THEY DON’T HAVE BORDEAUX CHOCOLATE CHERRY SWIRL? I WOULD NEVER HAVE COME IF I HAD KNOWN THAT!!” Me: “Dude, you would never have come if I hadn’t crow-barred your fingers off the keyboard.”)

So there’s some stress. I think I was more exhausted at the end of this summer than I ever have been before.

And that was before Back to School. Or as I like to call it, Fast Train to Hell.

Honestly, one day I’m just going to give up on it. It is so hugely hard for my kids, so traumatic and tense, it’s almost not worth it. They all approach it differently, like three vehicles hurtling towards a brick wall from different places. Liam’s always going the fastest, but he hits pretty darn hard too. He’s always eager to get back to the routine, the activity, the schedule, but gets so anxious about doing well, doing everything, pleasing everyone. Finn only barely manages to keep moving forward the nearer the first day of school gets. I think he honestly holds out big hope that one day he will oppose going so vehemently, he just won’t have to. And this year, with the entry into Middle School for the big boys, there was all sorts of finger-wagging and school lectures about responsibility and performance. Which is so exactly what those two needed. HA. And Rory, well, Rory loves school, it just doesn’t love him back so well.

I could go on about all the trauma, and drama, but it’s pointless and boring. I just keep pushing everyone in the right direction, trying to be calm and encouraging, and firm, and understanding, and supportive, and the whole time barely resisting a fierce urge to grab the three of them and run in the other direction. I really don’t think it should be this hard.

So here we find ourselves a few weeks in, and I’d love to say things are settling down. Some are, to be fair: the big boys are liking their home-room class, and haven’t yet ended up in another province taking the public buses to and from school everyday on their own. But otherwise, things are still all wobbly and stressful, and I’m still trying to beat down the escape plan like a gopher with a mallet. (I have the mallet in that scenario. Not the gopher.)

Besides, I would suck at home schooling. They would all end up thinking that “doing” math means staring into space and waiting for the answer to come to them.

Not that I do that.

Sexy Ingredient #3…

Up on the ITSK site, complete with ridiculously easy recipe. Cheers!

Flower girl

I don’t get a lot of pedicures. That doesn’t mean I have monkey feet, as one friend would say; I have very cute feet, thank you very much. I just don’t have $25 to spend every week and a half when I have a perfectly good train case full of nail polish at home. That came out wrong – I would LOVE to get  a pedicure every week, but can’t justify it, so I just fantasize about it, and limit myself to a few strategically timed visits a year.

The Start of Sandal Season, for one, and Upon Returning from a Week-Long Camping Trip. Heck, those are practically medically necessary. But a few weeks ago, in anticipation of a Big Night Out, I decided to indulge.

I timed it just right, savouring the days leading up to the appointment, avoiding eye contact with my sloppy home-done toes. What colour would I get? Magenta? Coral? OOH – What colour is my dress? What shoes am I wearing?!  I can occupy my mind for whole minutes with drivel like this.

Finally, the day arrived and I was in the shop before they’d finished setting up. Eager beaver, me. Not suave, but definitely enthusiastic. With uncharacteristic speed, I chose a deep, almost black, maroon polish – definitely not a colour I have at home, nor one I’d probably ever buy, ergo perfect for a professional job. I am going to have the sexiest, hippest toes in the CITY, I thought. I wriggled my toes in delicious anticipation in the warm water bath, and didn’t even read the trashy magazines while the aesthetician buffed, sloughed, and massaged. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy, I thought. Camping’s a long way off.

Finally, the polish went on in glossy dark strokes. It was so luxe, it was practically screaming to all who dared observe that I am THAT hip, THAT sexy, and very possibly dangerous. SWEET.

As she finished the last baby toe, she looked up and asked in a very thick Vietnamese accent whether I’d like a little flower. I’d been asked this before at the end of a pedicure; I’d seen a woman at the drying station once with a perfect tiny white daisy in the corner of each big toe. It was actually kinda pretty, like a little sparkle. I looked down at my nearly ebony nails and imagined a tiny flower in the corners… Flirty, I heard myself think, not too much, just enough to say “Here is a girl who doesn’t take her fabulous self too seriously.”

“Sure,” I said.

She disappears, and a minute or two later she’s back with an armload of little bottles and brushes. This should have been my first tip-off: do you really need six colours and a tube of gold glitter just to do a daisy?

The fact that the first bottle she dips her brush into is a kind of jungle green should maybe have been point to get some clarification. Something like, “You meant a little white daisy, right? In the corner?” I felt my chest tighten a little when she brought out the yellow, the gold, and so on. Soon, there’s enough plant life painted on my nails it looks like Vietnam, and I’m just getting more and more tense and distressed. There’s grass, there’s foliage, there’s a flower, maybe a tiger… I’m not sure. It was really crowded down there.

And the whole time in my head is going: “OHMYGOD she’s making a forest. A FOREST ON MY BIG TOES. And I really really wanted pretty toes, ’cause the next time I get this done is going to be WELL WHO KNOWS and I have to GO OUT IN PUBLIC like this and toes like this make me look like I maybe left my mu-mu and my blue eyeshadow at home and it’s so totally killing the dangerously sexy thing I had going and now it just looks like maybe I lost something in the MARSHLAND THAT IS MY FEET.”

And I know what you’re thinking (besides the obvious which is Ew): Why didn’t I just say something? I was paying for it, after all! But she was SO INTO IT. She was all focused and doing her art and I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was perhaps a little more… tropical… than I had imagined. In other words, I totally bailed. Chickened out. Folded. She was so in the zone, like finally someone had recognized her for the artist she was, and she was going to make sure they got their original work. I just kept smiling a little more stiffly until my eyebrows were somewhere above my hairline and my teeth hurt. “Oh,” I barked, a little too forcefully “SO PRETTY. Yep, wow. Nice. Bye-bye.”

I sidle over to the drying station, trying to look like I meant to have toes that look like that, and hope no one looks down. And I’m thinking, but I have to go OUT. With people. In public. And I start to panic a little. I wonder if there’s enough time to go to another salon to get them to mow my toes before that night, but there isn’t, and so I do the next best thing.

I go up to the cash, and in addition to paying the $25 for my pedicure, plus, I learned to my delight, an additional $7 for the ahem, FLOWER, I buy an entire bottle of the goth nail polish, the one I might never use again, so I can paint over the garden myself.

I am, I know, a little pathetic. But anytime you want to borrow a very hip nail colour, just call. I have lots.

Toes