Very short stories II

A very short story about jetlag:

We have left Toronto and have just arrived in Berlin. The kids are six and eight and they are jetlagged. On the first night they fall asleep shortly after dinner. On the second night I fall asleep shortly after dinner while they stay up for hours ripping a tissue box into tiny pieces. On the third night she is too hot, he can’t sleep, she cries because she misses her friends, he spills water on their beds, and I drink most of a bottle of wine. They’re not just jet-lagged; they’re scared. They don’t know anyone in this city; they have to start at a new school and they can’t understand what the other kids are saying on the playground. After midnight I drag both of their mattresses to the floor of our bedroom. He snuggles in quickly. I drape my hand over the edge of the bed and she falls asleep holding it. After a few moments I start liking them again.

A very short story about being the new kid:

She is pouting and having crying spells and I tread softly not knowing whether she needs a hug or needs to be left alone. It’s always alone first and then hugs later. She doesn’t know why she is sad. After a week I lose patience with the crying and the tummy aches and start telling her to just go lie down if she feels sick. At the playground she climbs on my lap and lolls her head around, whining that she’s bored. Then she lies down on the bench and says “I think I need some friends here.” School starts tomorrow.

A very short story about friends:

It is the first day at the new school and the boy has made a friend. She is holding his hand when I pick him up. We hang around so they can play outside where he offers her sips from his lemon drink. I glance around wondering if her parents are going to show up just in time to see some sweaty new kid offering their daughter backwashed lemonade. The next morning he is nervous again and hangs on to me. The new friend is sitting in front of a colouring page. He doesn’t recognize her because she is wearing different clothes. She pops up from her seat and pulls him away by the arm. She shows him her paper and says should we colour this together? He nods and follows her. She is like a magical gift of a human being.


Six very short stories

Very short story one:

The baby is seven days old and it is lying on some towels on the table on the deck and everyone is leaning over and peering at it. My nephew who is three asks: “ Whose baby is it? Who is her mother?” I think this is a very pertinent question and look around to see who claims the baby and then tears jump into my eyes and I can’t answer because I realize it is me.


Very short story two:

The baby has been admitted to the hospital and his clothes have been taken off and put back on several times. They come to the room and give me flannel pajamas for him and hospital-issue diapers and baby wipes that are dry and you have to wet them under the tap before you clean him. The pajamas are too big. They will weigh the diapers so I am supposed to leave them at the end of the bed and not throw them out. That’s when I realize that the transformation is complete. When I brought him in here he was my baby but now he is their patient and it only took about an hour.


Very short story three:

She is nine and her birthday was yesterday and she took the bus all by herself and she knew where to get off to catch the subway train and she knows which platform to stand on. I am on the train. I am scanning the platform. She should be getting on at this stop and I don’t see her and I don’t see her and I don’t see her. Then she is standing there and she is smaller than she was at breakfast and she glances at me and she smiles. She gets on the train and she wanted to go all by herself and she didn’t want me to help or even talk to her but she climbs up on my lap and we ride like that the rest of the way to school.


Very short story four:

The kids are pretending. One says “pretend I was teaching you” and the other one says “Yeah. And pretend I was really good.” One says “pretend I was the best one and I got ten points and the other kids said ‘wow, ten points’.” And the other one says “yeah you were really good and I was your teacher.” So they don’t really pretend; they just write elaborate scripts of themselves winning.

Very short story five:

He doesn’t want to go to school because he knows that his teacher is away and there will be a supply teacher. He likes all the supply teachers except one and he is afraid it might be her. Even if it isn’t her he is afraid because his friends will not behave for a supply teacher. He will be good but his friends might not be good and if they get in trouble he will be upset and this is why he can’t sleep. He is not comforted when I say that his friends’ behaviour is up to them, not up to him. He looks at me as though I don’t understand a thing.

Very short story six:

They won’t go to sleep because they are arguing about how old they are. She is ten but he says she is only nine because she hasn’t finished her tenth year. They ask me and I say she has finished her tenth year and now she is in her eleventh year but she has not yet turned eleven. He says he doesn’t get it and now he is mad.



Twenty years of mixed tapes

Today is my mother’s 70th birthday. When she turned 50, in the mid-nineties, I was 20 and my sister was 22. We didn’t have any money. And our mother is notoriously hard to buy for; she never wants things. So we rather sheepishly made her a mixed tape. We decorated the cover with a big “50” cut out of a magazine and wrote the names of the songs inside. We put songs we knew she’d like – by Leonard Cohen and UB40 – and songs we liked, by The Breeders and the Gypsy Kings.

1995 fifty cover

For her 52nd we made her another tape and called it Full Deck. Conveniently, tapes share the size and shape of a deck of cards (52! Full Deck! – had these been the CD years the title wouldn’t have worked). That tape lived in my mom’s car for thirteen years before she finally upgraded and had a CD player installed.

1997 full deck cover

Full Deck has a few of the artists who show up on nearly every birthday album: Ani Difranco, Grateful Dead, Cowboy Junkies. It also has some favorite opera pieces including the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute. My mother used to lip sync that aria in the car on long trips. As a kid I’d sit in the back and watch her pretend to hit the high notes. I remember knowing that she wasn’t really singing along but I always had a nagging doubt – maybe that was her voice we heard hitting high F. Maybe her voice only worked like that in the car.

For her 56th birthday album I have a playlist on my computer so by then we must have been burning CDs. The year my mother turned 56 we were listening to a lot of Macy Gray and Billy Bragg. And that’s the year we included an old favourite that we still belt out each summer: The Swimming Song by Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

For the birthday CDs we printed out the song lists and chose a photo for the cover. In the early years we’d use one of my brother-in-law’s fine art photographs. Some of the more recent covers echo the original magazine-pasted tape covers with collages of grandchildren’s heads on them. For her 68th we PhotoShopped my partner into a family photo that he’d missed. Keen observers will note that he looks a bit out-of-place in his short sleeves with the rest of us bundled into winter coats on the toboggan hill.

2000 sally 55 sixty-three sixty-eight

During my mother’s 50s – my 20s – we made a birthday album every few years. I suppose we still wondered what to get her for each birthday and only resorted to a mixed tape when we couldn’t think of anything else. By her 60s we were resigned to the fact that a music mix was the best we could come up with and the albums were produced regularly.

For me, it’s become a habit. When I hear a song I think she’ll like, I just add it to the playlist for next year’s mix. I start a new playlist shortly after her birthday each year. At dinner parties I often play a mix derived from the nearly twenty years of songs we’ve been selecting for Mom’s albums – after removing the banjo tunes and the opera tunes and the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus from the list.

Every year my sister and I talk in the early spring and figure out which songs to include. Each album is a little snapshot of the songs we liked that year: Her 59th is full of Jack Johnson; there are a few too many Vampire Weekend songs on her 65th. Remember when Natalie Maines said some perfectly reasonable things about shame and war and George Bush Jr. and raised the ire of a bunch of country music fans to the point where she received death threats if she didn’t shut up and sing? That year’s album has a lot of Dixie Chicks songs (well not that year but her 63rd, after the documentary came out, does).

Her 64th starts with the obvious Beatles tune. For her 69th last year Akka argued successfully for some Katy Perry. Although we’ve never intentionally strived for Canadian content, our ratio is quite high; Tegan and Sara, Serena Ryder and Justin Rutledge have all made regular appearances. The albums we made during the years my sister was living in Mali have Amadou & Mariam and Farka Touré.

I still think of them as mixed tapes but the formats changed over the years. First they were indeed tapes with handwritten song lists and pasted-on decorations. The first tape’s liner has white-out on it where I printed a song’s name before waiting to find out whether the whole thing would fit on side A. Later we burned CDs and printed the covers. A few years ago we handed her a USB stick and she simply copied the songs onto her computer with a digital cover image. Last year none of us were in the same city so we uploaded songs to a file-sharing site and emailed back and forth to finalize the list. Her birthday email included the link to where she could download them.

Today my mother turns 70. We’ve got 17 songs on the playlist. One of them is from a book she read to my kids a few months ago. One of them is a Swahili song that Akka’s choir sang. One of them is a KD Lang cover of the Steve Miller Band (so, no explanation necessary). Maybe for old time’s sake we’ll record them on to a tape. If I can remember how!


do you want to be hugged?

The Minister of Education for the Province of Ontario has announced that when they update the sex-ed curriculum this year it will include material on healthy relationships and consent for the littlest kids. The announcement came just one day after my article about teaching kids consent appeared in the Huffington Post.


Yes, probably. But still very good news.

Raising boys: How to teach consent

My son runs towards me at full-speed and dives into my arms. He buries his head and tucks it in for a full-fledged snuggle. Then he pulls away, looks into my face and says, “Wait — do you want to be hugged?” Read the full story here.

playing with fire

My kids have found something new to play with. It’s cheap and accessible. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and their communication skills. It allows them to explore changing states of matter. It fosters cooperation and a sense of community and looking out for one’s peers. It promotes role-playing, imaginative play and self control. It is fire. My kids are playing with fire.

I asked them to light the candles at the table one evening and showed them how to strike the match. Later, when I saw them tentatively playing with the candle –  feeling the heat around it, poking it with the burnt matchstick – I offered to put the candle in the empty sink where they could play with it without sending our napkins up in flames. They pulled two chairs over to the sink and set to work. They burned all the matches. Then they burned the empty matchbox. They were careful. Like, extremely careful. No one got burned. No one got even close to getting burned. They squeaked and gasped and winced each time they lit a match. K and I stood behind them and held in giggles. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Are our kids boring? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they better at doing bad stuff?

When I was 6 and my sister was 8 we bought cigarettes, telling the shopkeeper they were for our parents. We took them to the gulley and smoked them all (I didn’t inhale!). We then returned to the shop for caramels to soothe our raw throats. I’m not advocating this. I don’t wish my kids would smoke a pack. I share the story simply to convey that I’m pretty sure that striking the matches was not the biggest challenge that day. Getting money and hiding smokes was. We thought nothing of making a little flame.

We all know what happens when you play with fire: you get burned. And what happens when you get burned by a match? It hurts; maybe a small blister. That’s it. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it preventable? Also yes. Is it so terrible that it must be avoided at any cost and therefore a wall of caution and fear must be erected around fire so that children never, ever try to investigate and control its allure and may forever doubt their own ability to approach and manage risk? No. No it isn’t.

Now playing with fire has become one of their favourite things to do. When Akka had a friend over and they were leaving Malli out I tried to occupy him for a while with card games but that quickly got boring (for me). “Hey,” I said. “You want to light some matches?” I set him up at a little table with a tealight candle and a book of matches. He set about burning them; holding them for a long as he could before blowing them out, then waiting for the tip to cool and holding the other end to the flame to turn the whole matchstick black. He was entranced; I was free to get other things done. He had a lot of questions about what things burn. Plastic, I assured him, was a bad idea. But sure, lots of other things burn. Like this wine cork from the other night! No, not the plastic one but the real cork one. First he asked for a cup of water to keep next to him (see? careful!). Then he burned it.


A few days later both kids were set up for our new game: burning stuff. I gave them a baking tray to hold all their paraphernalia and they burned a whole box of matches, then the box itself, then some cardboard strips. I opened the windows to air out the apartment and wondered about the reliability of our smoke alarms which never objected during any of this. Must check those.

IMG_4557 IMG_4561

Look, I’m glad they’re cautious. I’m glad I never glance up to find them walking the roof ridge-line or paddling the canoe out to open water without a life jacket. But I do think it’s fine if they burn small stuff to see what happens. And I don’t think it should be me who shows them; I think they need to figure this out for themselves. So maybe this winter they can make a small fire-pit in the backyard snow. Or maybe next summer at Poppa’s cottage – after a hard rain, when the forest fire advisory is low – I’ll carelessly leave a book of matches and some dry sticks and leaves in the sand while I go take a nap.

Letting them fail


First published on Huffington Post Canada (Parentdish), December 9, 2014

My kid came home from school the other day and announced that she was auditioning for the school’s chamber choir. I stifled my surprise (I hope) and gulped, “Great!”

She sings in the school choir — the one that anyone can join — and she loves it. Her little voice soars with all the others and she proudly sang at the school assembly just last month. But my precious daughter does not have a good ear. An unkind (but accurate) label for her might be tone-deaf. Without the piano accompaniment and the voices of her fellow choristers to keep her on track, her pitch can vary widely. (Naturally, I blame her father and he accepts all genetic responsibility.)

We’ve never told our kid that she can’t sing. Scratch that — she can sing; she just can’t sing on-key without support. She loves singing and I’ve been delighted that she’s in the choir because I know that musicianship can be taught. Her pitch has improved and she rocked her first piano recital this past weekend. So the kid has skills, but perfect pitch isn’t one of them.

When she decided to try out for the chamber choir I was uncertain how to react. My first thought was that she’s not chamber choir material. This is the smaller and, dare I say, more elite choir made up of the best singers from the senior grades. They get to do cool stuff like sing the national anthem at a baseball game. Indeed, missing school to participate in that event appears to be my daughter’s primary motivation for auditioning.

choir concert

My first reaction was to protect her. Maybe I could gently tell her she’s not a good enough singer to be in the chamber choir. We could abort the audition and with it, any further risk of disappointment. Mama bear wanted to protect her young.

My second reaction was to help her not fail. We could practice! I could train her to sing on key before Thursday! Tiger mama would not accept failure.

Helicopter mama wanted to control the audition process. Snow-plow mama wanted to eliminate chamber choir altogether and find clear a problem-free path for her kid.

But deep down I’m not really a mama-bear/tiger/helicopter or snow-plow parent. All I wanted was to ensure that my precious child didn’t go through the heart-wrenching experience of scanning a list for her name and having it not appear. The down-side, I quickly realized, is that my precious child wouldn’t go through the heart-wrenching experience of scanning a list for her name and having it not appear.

So I wised up. I’ve tried out for teams and not made it. I’ve auditioned for parts I didn’t get. I don’t remember my parents being involved or even aware of these experiences at all.

Yes, she should audition. Yes, she should feel nervous and scared and still go for it. Yes, she should have to wait until the list is posted to find out how she did. She should feel the elation of seeing her name on that list or the disappointment of it being absent. She should feel the mix of being sad for herself while being happy for a friend, or proud of herself while sharing a friend’s disappointment. All of things should be felt by a nine-year-old child and none of them should be mediated by her mother.

So all I did was nod my head and tell her it was great to try something new. I wished her luck. And whatever happens I’m already very proud.

Epilogue: She will not be in the chamber choir this year. She is taking this in stride. She can try again next year. She still loves to sing.

Learning from the Sneetches

This is not the first time Dr. Seuss has graced these pages. You may remember that the Cat in the Hat home invader did not survive his trip on the Character Assassination Carousel.

Today, however, I would like to acknowledge some beaked Dr. Seuss characters whose presence has been welcome in my kids’ lives: The Sneetches.

The Sneetches helped me answer this question that came my way from Akka last year: “Mama? When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

This post was first published on Parentdish Canada on November 26, 2014.


“Mama? You know when white people thought they were better?” This from my eight-year-old daughter one morning on our way to school. She had about a quarter of my attention.

“What’s that, babe?”

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

My partner and I knew early on that we were going to talk to the kids about race. We weren’t going to pretend that they wouldn’t notice their own parents are two different colours. I’d read articles suggesting that parents often think their kids are growing up colour blind. They’re not.

Kids develop ideas about race early. We’d do better to name the issues and talk about them openly rather than hope race is no longer an issue just because their class photo shows more diversity than ours did.

So we’d had conversations about skin colour. We had talked about how most people in Europe, and families like mine who had moved from Europe, had white skin. And people in Sri Lanka, as well as people who had moved from Sri Lanka like their dad, had brown skin.

We had also told them that white people used to think that people with darker skin weren’t as good as they were. And that there was a time when people with brown skin had to live separately and also when many of them had to work for no money.

We had talked about racism. They had witnessed the actions of customs officers in airports who told us to approach one at a time; not realizing we were a family. They saw their dad get held back and searched while I was waved through.

I thought we had been doing a pretty good job. I knew we couldn’t cover everything but I had hoped we were giving them the basic vocabulary to talk about racism and the understanding they would need to recognize and hopefully to fight injustices.

But that morning I was reminded of how little we as parents understand what is going on in those little heads. My kids and I had been walking to the train platform and talking about a story that we like: The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

In Sneetch society, bearing a star on one’s belly is a mark of privilege, and the star-bellied Sneetches impose all kinds of indignities on the starless ones, like excluding them from their frankfurter parties.

A stranger comes to town and offers to stamp stars on those without and then to remove stars from those so endowed. The Sneetches spend all their money but learn that sporting a star or not is a feeble mark for the worth of a Sneetch. Good lesson.

The kids said the star-bellied Sneetches were silly for leaving the starless ones out; just like when white people thought that brown people weren’t as good as they were. Silly and wrong.

This was the story that had sparked my daughter’s question. What would happen if a star-bellied Sneetch and a starless one got together beyond the reach of the frankfurter party firelight? What sort of Sneetch would result from such a union and how would it be received by the others?

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

We were crossing a busy street. Our train was coming soon. We were rushing to school the way we rush to school every morning. This was one of those conversations that you have with your kids one sentence at a time in between saying “come-on!” and “look-both-ways” and “you-can-fix-your-sock-when-we-get-there.”

So I answered quickly. “It was bad,” I said. “The white people didn’t like the mixed people, either.” Because I’d reasoned that she was thinking of apartheid in South Africa (we had been talking about it after Nelson Mandela’s death). I said, “the mixed people also had to live separate from the whites and couldn’t have all the things that they had.”

My daughter stopped. I glanced down at her just in time to see a look flash across her face. She was surprised. Shocked and hurt. I cast my mind back, wondering what might have upset her, and I suddenly realized that she had not seen that answer coming. She hadn’t known.

When we had talked about the times and places when racist rules prevailed, it had never occurred to her that people like her had suffered. I had just watched her find out that there was no star on her belly.

Perhaps she had thought she was going to hear something different. She knows that she is both Canadian and Sri Lankan, both white and brown.

She and her brother are doted on and adored by families on three continents; families that have little in common besides these two children. Perhaps she had thought that I would tell her that mixed people are loved and accepted by both sides in divided, racist societies. As part of both sides, they are the bridge between them; the proof that the divisions are arbitrary and hurtful and wrong.

Maybe she had thought I might say that the white people loved the mixed people because they were part white and the brown people loved the mixed people because they were part brown. Doubly-loved.

Instead, without pausing long enough to really hear her question, I’d told her that people like her were treated badly. I had inadvertently opened her eyes a little wider than I had realized. She knew now what is both surprising and obvious: being part-white is being non-white.

I regretted my answer. I should have waited until we were having a conversation face-to-face where I could have asked her more about what she was thinking. I wish I could go back and explore the world she had in her mind before I told her that life had been (and therefore could still be) hard for a mixed-race person. I had taken the wind out of her beautiful little sails and longed to blow some air back in.

We caught our train. She changed the subject. She didn’t have any more questions. And she seemed fine.

Growing up, our children will have many moments when reality displaces a firmly held but false belief. First, their childhood fantasies were reasoned away: they cannot fly and the dinosaurs are never coming back to life. Now they have to contend with uglier truths being revealed: life isn’t fair and racism really does hurt people very much like them.

Leah Birnbaum is an urban planning consultant and a parent in Toronto. She blogs at Chapter Four.