Tag Archives: telling it like it is

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.



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.

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.

What I did all year

“What are you going to do in Germany?” people would ask. We left our Toronto home for a year and moved to Berlin. My partner had a sabbatical year and we wanted to spend it somewhere else. We found an apartment to rent, found a school for the kids for grades one and three and found tenants to live in our Toronto house. “And what are you going to do while you’re there?” my friends would ask. “A whole year off? Wow – you’re so lucky. You’ll have so much time to do whatever you want. Whatever you love.”

Right – that’s what I’ll do during our year away. Whatever I love doing – my real passion! Perfect.

But first I was busy figuring out how to live in a new place. There were bureaucratic tasks involving passports, bank accounts and school fees; our apartment was furnished but we needed more bedding for visitors; the kids needed specific closeable plastic envelopes to carry homework and hausschuhe which are not shoes but slippers. First I had to get all that out of the way and then I’d get down to doing what I loved.

One morning, after we were reasonably settled in, I dropped off the kids and found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of the school with nothing to do. I had nowhere to be. I had no immediate errands to run. So I walked home. It took about 45 minutes. I started to do this regularly and tried lots of different routes. I would sometimes stop on the way for a quarktasche and tea. Or I would sit in a park and answer emails. Or I would take photographs. A few times I hopped on a tram just to see where it went. Soon, when my schedule was truly, actually, completely clear, then I would figure out what to do with my time but for now, I was still exploring.

I did work – on ongoing contracts for clients in Canada. But there weren’t enough of these to fill the hours and in my line of work landing new contracts from an ocean away wasn’t feasible. So while I had work, I also had a lot of free time.

I began to let small distractions become big ones. I rode the transit system far and wide on the slightest pretense. In search of a new dinner idea, I headed way out of town to pick up frozen Swedish meatballs – having discovered the route during one of my tram rides. When Hanukkah rolled around I spent a whole day scouring the city for candles and dreidels.

Errands that would take 15 minutes of my time in Toronto stretched into half-day projects; not because they had to but because I would enhance the task; deciding to see whether the prices in the suburban mall were the same as those in the central shops when the kids needed winter boots; using a burnt-out light bulb or a spent battery as an excuse to wander through the big home-improvement store that I would otherwise have no reason to visit. Each time I finished a book I went to a new bookstore. I browsed every bookstore in Berlin with an English book section.

I grocery shopped slowly; examining what each shop had to offer; developing preferences for some stores over others. I figured out that the bread the kids like is from one shop while the muesli I prefer comes from another. I bought a used bike, found bike baskets, filled them with the groceries and carried it all up five flights of stairs. With four eaters in the house, plus frequent visitors, buying only what will fit in two bicycle baskets meant that I bought groceries every day. I went sightseeing. I visited tourist landmarks. I found suburban lakes equipped with walking paths from the transit station through the woods to the beer garden.

I hosted. His parents, his sister, my mother, my sister, my father, friends from Toronto and London. One after another, they came. Some for a few days, some for a month or more. I kept a list of places to see. I drew must-sees on to the transit maps and became an expert at advising the best routes.

Some days just formed themselves. Once, while putting away the dishes, I broke a wine glass. I looked up to realize that we were down to three from the original six that came with the apartment and an option for the day became clear. I dropped the kids at school, got my bike and rode through Berlin’s former-airport-turned-park to the store to pick up new wine glasses. Exercise, errands, and sightseeing all in one. I might have started to do what I love that day but I couldn’t because the glass broke. So my passion would have to wait.

Sometimes I would play solitaire on my phone. A few times I even contemplated staying on the u-bahn for a few extra stops just so I wouldn’t have to put a winning game on hold. Then I’d click my phone off and jump out at the right station with a sense of shame and a sharp internal admonishment to stop wasting this opportunity. Stop squandering this year by whiling it away comparison shopping and staring at a smart phone. Do something.

I mended all the ripped knees in my son’s pants by hand. I searched for new eyeglass frames. I worked a bit, and wrote, and read news magazines from cover to cover. I found places for us to stay when we went on trips. I bought gifts for all the kids who invited mine to birthday parties. I tried to ask for gift receipts in German but was offered gift-wrap. I sat and held hysterical children until they calmed down enough to tell me that they hate drama class or they miss their friends back home or their feet no longer fit in their shoes and in fact they never did fit ever. I finally finished knitting a scarf that had been sitting idle for ages. But the kid no longer likes green and I ran out of yarn before it was long enough and now it makes a bulky cowl for a well-dressed doll.

Even when I was busy I always had a nagging sense that I should be doing something more. I would oscillate between relishing the freedom and flexibility of my days and agonizing that I was being foolish, letting this gift of a year slip through my fingers. Sometimes I felt confident that the thing I was supposed to be doing – that thing that I love that I finally had time for – would reveal itself. But as the months wore on doubt crept in. Maybe I don’t love anything. Maybe there isn’t anything I really want to do. Or see. Or accomplish. Or learn. Maybe I don’t have a thing.

Then a child would get sick or a family member would come to visit or we would go on a short trip and I would be busy with everyday life and forget for a while that I wasn’t doing anything.

About six months in things got quiet. All the visitors had left. We were months away from the next planned trip. The weather turned cold and the days were short. The kids had their school routines all figured out. I couldn’t put it off any longer: this was the time. This was the blank slate time that I had; that I had to use. It was now.

Now I could see that there wasn’t going to be one, clear project that would define my Berlin year. I wasn’t going to go back home with a confident one-sentence answer to the question ‘what did you do in Berlin?’ I wrote a book! I learned perfect German! I learned how to use that architectural design software. No. No distinct, compelling, relevant-yet-fun project was going to present itself. I thought of throwing myself into several different endeavours but I didn’t. I had the time but I didn’t use it. Not that way. This felt like a major failure. I felt defeated and embarrassed not to have a quick answer when people asked what I did with myself all day.

But as the days started to lengthen again I realized that I was going about this all wrong. What was bothering me was not how I spent my time but what people might think about how I spent my time. If I was honest, I enjoyed my days; most of them. I didn’t really want to sit inside writing a book or staring at a screen finally figuring out AutoCAD. So I didn’t do those things. So, fine.

Answering the question “How was Berlin? What did you do all year?” deserves more than a one-line answer. If I’m not arriving home with quick and easy proof of a year well-spent, is that so bad? Will my friends and colleagues have their own one-line explanations for how they spent their time while I was away? Perhaps I became too pre-occupied by what is only a bit of lazy conversation: “How was Berlin? What did you do?”

I’ll tell you what I did: I lived in Berlin. I lived there. For a very short, very fast year. And it was a good year. I do not wish I’d used it differently. I do wish I had come to the realization earlier that the way I spend my time is not a matter I need to defend. I had a lot of time. It was mine. I spent it mindfully. I remember it fondly.



We have moved to Berlin for a year and I’m putting this blog on hold. I’m doing some writing but I’m not going to post each snippet here as I go. My Berlin reflections may well find their way to this (or another) blog but first I’m going to try out a less immediately gratifying style of writing. We’ll see how it goes. I may find that I don’t like to write without the quick reflections of ‘likes’ and comments and spikes in my readership stats to spur me on. Or I may find that I do.

But before I go, let me not leave you in a thumb-sucking limbo. Akka has totally quit! That time back in January – that was it! And as of about a week ago, it looks like Malli has too. Big changes around here.

thumbsuckers (still)

It has been more than two years since I wrote about my children’s voracious thumbsucking habit. I’m sorry to report that their enthusiasm for their thumbs is no less voracious today. Or am I? Therein lies my latest parenting dilemma.

They tried to quit. Then they stopped trying. The little thumb puppets were thrown from the bed. The sleek thumb-mittens were stretched out of shape after being repeatedly yanked out of the way of a needy mouth. Every few months I’d bring it up again and we’d try a new regime of sticker-rewards or check marks for each recess or dinner hour spent thumbless. Check marks could be collected and exchanged for gum or erasers or a pack of pipe cleaners. They built thumb-sandwiches out of tongue depressors and medical tape. Then they wrapped themselves up only to cry out ten minutes later to be set free.

It was all crap. None of it worked. Not even a little bit. It turns out they didn’t really want to quit – I wanted them to. I loved seeing their little faces without a fist in the way. I hated the idea that they’re making their jaws grow askew or setting themselves up for all sorts of invasive orthodontic treatment. I also hated how disappointed I’d be when each quitting method failed.

So we went to see an orthodontist. And he said it’s no big deal. He did say their jaws are messed up. Cross-bite, open-bite, they’ve got it all. But he didn’t seem to think the thumbs were making these conditions worse or that pushing them to quit would do much good. He also said they’ll quit when we start putting stuff in their mouths to correct those bite problems. The dentist, however, says that stopping the thumbs now while they’re still growing will prevent their bites from getting worse. So which one is right? And whose advice do I follow?

Will we cement bars across the roof of their mouths to prevent the thumb from fitting in? Don’t look shocked – I was this close to doing it. But can I handle the anguish and stress they’ll feel if their source of comfort is so blatantly blocked? Oops – I mean – can they?

I have no idea. Today we went to our regular dentist appointment. Akka has four cavities. Malli has two. We had to book three more appointments to get those fixed. The dentist is cool with not putting the anti-thumbsucking-bars in for now but she says that if I talk to ten different orthodontists I’ll get ten different answers. Upon hearing that my first thought was who has the time for more appointments!?

So, I remain uncertain. And they remain thumbsucking. And maybe that’s fine. I need to stop thinking about it for a while. I’ve decided to focus instead on the one small triumph I managed today: I found a tube of raspberry cupcake lip balm after it had been through the washing machine but – and this part is crucial – before it went in the dryer.


a somewhat peaceful winter day

Today I took the kids and one of their friends skating. It was a beautiful, bright day. Cold and crisp. Dusting of snow on the ground. Clear blue sky with a few wisps of clouds. Brisk breeze at our backs. People smiling and birds chirping. Actually, it’s probably too cold for chirping birds. And even if they had been singing beautiful harmonies I wouldn’t have heard them because all I could hear was this:

Wow, it’s windy. The wind is blowing us. Wind can’t pick people up. Well, tornados can. But we don’t have tornados here, right? In Toronto? Is that why you decided to live here? And tornados can kill people. If you get bonked by a car or something in a tornado you can be like a zombie made of blood.

Imagine bug tornados! Mama, what would a bug tornado be? Like a really small tornado? But that couldn’t pick us up. It’s waaaaayyy too small. A bug tornado would be like a leaf twisting around. Hey, I never heard of a cloud that can touch the ground! 

Can hippos kill you? If they bite you? Or stomp on you? Hippos can bring down your boat with their mouth. Are hippos’ mouths really really big? You know how they can go really fast? But almost as fast as a leopard and a lion?

Can they?

Then we went skating. Luckily he can’t really balance and talk at the same time. It was very peaceful.