Report Card Day

It’s report card day, rapidly becoming my least favourite day of the school year. I’ve ranted before about the comments on them – so very, very much work for the poor teachers, and in the end, almost complete gibberish, due to the strict regulations they are under and the inability to BOLD THE ADJECTIVES which are the most important part (“he OCCASIONALLY cleans up!”).

This year an exciting new trend in commenting features the phrases “learning to” and “beginning to”, as in “she is learning to manage her time wisely and hand in assignments on schedule” which sounds so positive, I think, like, my kid is learning! She is growing and getting better! But my experience with report cards has me jadedly thinking this is actually probably supposed to indicate that she is behind the curve on this particular milestone. Sigh.

But what I really wanted to complain about is the fact that I have two Lisa Simpsons and one Bart Simpson and that’s what really makes report card day so tough. Two of my kids brought home mostly A’s and universally positive comments (I THINK). One kid brought home the usual smattering of B-‘s and C+’s, and it’s always that kid who looks up at me with big brown eyes and says sadly, “Is it a good report card?”

My poor baby.

So I do my best to downplay report cards as a whole, to tell everyone they did a good job and set them aside to look at them more closely when the kids are asleep. I whisper to my two Lisas that they have done well and I am proud of them but that they shouldn’t talk about it around the house. I gently tell the Bart at bedtime that there are a few things to work on, but that they are loved just the way they are and there are lots of important things to be besides good at taking tests.

But either way I feel like I am taking sides, belittling one team or the other. It’s not a problem to celebrate the achievements of one kid when it’s something the others don’t do – say, cheering on our Brownie for earning a good badge or our Piano Player for rocking that recital. It’s a problem to praise some, but not all, when they all have the same list of marks in front of them for direct comparison purposes. How do you find the balance?

The Meaning of Success

I’ve been watching Glee with Gal Smiley on a more-or-less nightly basis – we’re up to the end of Season 3 now. In general it’s going well – we sometimes roll our eyes at the Very Important Issue Of The Week storylines, but in general the music is fun and the one-liners are funny and the characters are endearing.

It’s rare that they perform a song on the show that I don’t know, but last night we watched an episode featuring a song that was completely new to me. What’s more, I immediately fell totally in love with it, and said to myself, I must find out who sings this song and then buy it, because it is TOTES CHARMING. Here’s the Glee version:

And here’s the original, which, it turns out, is by TAYLOR FREAKIN’ SWIFT.

Clearly this means that Tay-tay and I are bosom friends and I will be joining her squad any moment now. As much as I love Taylor, I have to admit I have zero knowledge of her music prior to 1989, so yes, I’d never heard this song before, but obviously my love for her runs deep. Also, apparently I am also A Little Bit Country. Who knew?

After this major, life-changing revelation I went on Wikipedia to learn about Taylor’s music and ended up reading her bio there, and I have to say, I am impressed. She is one of these people who, from a young age, has tremendous drive and focus and a willingness to do whatever it takes to make it happen. I love her, but I think we can all agree that vocally she’s no Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey or someone who, having heard sing at age 10, you would immediately say, “That girl has some chops.” But she decided young that she wanted to be a music star, and then she worked tirelessly on that and nothing else until it happened. She entered the same singing competition four times until she won, she wrote dozens and dozens of songs until she got good at it, she asked her parents (who were in the banking industry, and totally not musicians) to move to Nashville, she made her own contacts and sent around her own demos, she tirelessly self-promoted. It amazes me.

I’m not sure I would want a kid like that, but in general I find that kind of dedication to a goal to be really inspiring. As I get older it’s easy to be jaded when people tell kids that they can be anything they want to be – the world is a hard place, getting ahead is so tough, and there’s a base level of talent that seems to be a requirement. But stories like this really make me wonder if you really CAN be anything you want to be, if you work hard enough and never lose sight of what you want. Maybe you have to have that kind of drive inborn in you – but maybe, just maybe, it can be learned.

I’m going to try to learn it.

Don’t Ask Me If I’m Okay

I am developing a very odd pet peeve, and it’s that I hate it when everyone rushes to ask me if I am okay when I squeal with frustration or drop something in the kitchen.

It took us forever to teach the children that when someone is hurt, an appropriate response is to show concern, and ask if they are alright, and offer to help, and definitely NOT to just continue playing Legos as if all was well in the world.

But now I find it has gone too far and every time I yelp because I’ve been splattered by bacon (which happens OFTEN), or drop some tupperware on the floor with a clatter, or exclaim in frustration because I forgot about the pancakes and now they are burned, three little voices are right there all up in my business with a concerned, “Are you okay??” And to that I say a) I am not okay, per se, but I’m not dying or anything, and b) there’s nothing they can do, and c) making a bigger deal about it than I am already making (like the big baby I am) makes me more angry, so d) you and your FREAKING CONCERN are likely to get snapped at in a most unjust manner.

So now I have a new rule, NO ASKING IF MOMMY IS OKAY. Please be LESS NICE to your mother. Please ignore me and allow me to suffer in peace while you quietly suffer in guilt at your complete impotence over there somewhere.

I feel like I am the very HEIGHT of Scrooge on this, don’t you?

Hat Person

In my mother’s world, there are two kinds of people: hat people and not hat people. We’d be out shopping and see a cute hat and she’d say, “Oh sure, you can wear that, you’re a hat person.” She’d sigh. “Hats just don’t work on me.”

The first winter I was away from home was a cold one. I was newly graduated from university and living in my very own tiny bachelor apartment in the big city of Toronto, seeing my friends on weekends but for the most part spending my time working, commuting, and trying to figure out how to make spaghetti. A care package was waiting for me one day at the security desk. It was from my mom, and it was a hat she’d sewn for me. A warm winter hat made of thick black and white tweed, with a red ribbon around the inside like a secret reminder that I was loved. It had an old-fashioned brim and was completely unique, which was just the way I liked things to be.

That winter my company decided to send me to London because a client was having trouble with a software program I’d developed. It was right before Christmas and I had shopping and baking and wrapping to do, my very own tiny artificial tree to decorate. I’d never been overseas – didn’t even have a passport – and was less than enthusiastic about the whole trip. When I finally arrived, I was exhausted, jet-lagged, and sticking out like a sore thumb in my tweed hat and bright green pea coat amid a sea of black mackintoshes. It was pouring rain and I was unhappy.

I did my best to work at the client site during the day, and the people in the office were great, taking me out to eat at night and making sure I had enough change for the tube. The second night we were there, we all went out for Mexican food and although the food was terrible and I was still bleary-eyed I had a nice time. It wasn’t until we were packing up to leave that I noticed my hat was missing. I thought maybe I’d dropped it on the floor, or left it in the bathroom, but a search of the restaurant turned up nothing. There was nothing to do but go back to my cramped hotel room and sob myself to sleep.

I called the restaurant every day I was in London but the hat never turned up. I flew home a week later, a hat person with no hat. My mom greeted me at home on Christmas with a hug – she’d tried to find the same fabric but couldn’t. Some things can never be replaced.

The BRSY Project

By 2012, our Forester James was almost 10 years old and needed some work. Nothing was really wrong, it just needed new tires and something something engine belt something, and there were little things like the handle on the hatchback being rusted out so it was hard to open and close. It was going to be a few thousand dollars worth of work but one of the reasons we bought a Subaru in the first place was so it would last a couple of decades, and our original plan definitely would have had us put the money into the car and keep it.

But I could tell Sir Monkeypants was sad at the idea of putting money into a car that he didn’t like, only so that he could drive it for another 10 years. And then he got a bit of a bonus at work and so I channeled my guilt and convinced him that now was a good time to just get a new car.

He shopped around a bit and had a few favourites on paper, but when he went for the test drives one car shone above the rest, and so he bought one. It was a 2013 standard transmission Volkswagon Golf TDI in dark blue, with a manual transmission and Bluetooth something or other and super duper good gas mileage and lots of other fun things. And he was happy.

Now, you may think this story has a sad ending because of course, after a few blissful years we found out that the Golf TDI is part of one of the biggest automotive scandals in history, because to get that awesome driving experience combined with low gas mileage they cut a few corners when it came to the environment. Now our car is definitely worth less (if not zero) for resale value, and it might have to undergo some changes that will leave it less fun to drive and worse on gas, two of the very things we valued in it.

BUT, this story is really mostly happy because there is no doubt that Sir Monkeypants really does love driving his car, and has no regrets about ditching the Forester for the Golf, and continues to enjoy driving it for the moment. We are hopeful it will work out for the best but for now, all is well.

Our old VTO license plate was almost 20 years old when we got the Golf, so Sir Monkeypants treated himself to a new plate, too. His new plate starts with BRSY and so he named his new best buddy “Breezy.”

And NOW, we are finally at the story I wanted to tell when I started this whole massive, massive backstory, and aren’t you glad you aren’t sitting next to me at a dinner party right now?

It was a huge deal when we got the Golf because we were all so happy for Sir Monkeypants – he just loved driving again. He had so much delight every time he went to the pumps, he’d have to tell me all about it when he got home. He’d volunteer for every carpool just so he could take his car out for a spin, and he never complained about traffic “forcing” him to take the long way home. It was like the end of the Automotive Dark Ages and the kids and I wanted to make a big fuss over the whole thing.

So ever since we got BRSY, whenever we see another car with the BRSY prefix, we call out, “Breezy bud!”, because those cars are related to ours somehow. This is a tradition going back to one of my nephews, who as a toddler used to call out “sister car!” whenever he saw a car of the same model and make as their own. Eventually I got the idea to start taking pictures of every BRSY license plate I saw. I had the plan to turn them into a massive poster for Sir Monkeypants some Christmas, with his own BRSY right in the middle. It would be a tribute to the fact that he finally has a car he loves to drive.

It’s been three and a half years and I actually thought that I’d have pictures of almost all the 1000 BRSYs by now. But I’m still hovering around 30 or so, even though I probably spot one or two of them a month. For a while there I gave up, but now I’m back at it. I’m both a collector and a completionist by nature and I just can’t let it go.

So, here’s some of the collection – and if you’re out and about, and spot a BRSY, maybe send me a pic?

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Molly

In 2006 we found out we were expecting a third kid and it was clear that James was not going to cut it as the family car anymore. We were going to need three five-point harnesses, because the Captain was still so small, and we simply could not fit three car seats in the Forester. It was time for a van.

Sir Monkeypants somehow found out about this awesome deal on a used van at our local Ford dealership. They were running some sort of barely legal thing where they bought up a bunch of ex-rental cars from the southern United States, brought them across the border, and sold them up here for cheap. I think this loophole has since been closed, but we scored a great deal on a 2006 Toyota Sienna that had just barely 10K miles on it, was not even a year old, and had tons of features we wouldn’t have paid for otherwise, including eight seats and automatic sliding doors. Just about the only drawback was that it was white – both Sir Monkeypants and I are not fans of white cars, let alone white vans that look like you’re a lurking serial killer wherever you go – but the deal was too good to pass up.

The big problem was deciding which car to get rid of. At the time we still owned Spencer, Sir Monkeypants’ beloved Integra, and James, my beloved Forester. The new van was going to be mine, mostly, as I would be the one schlepping kids around all day long, so it made sense to replace James; but the Integra was nine years old and gently starting to show its age, plus as a backup car its two doors made it less practical for car seats. So in the end, I convinced Sir Monkeypants that keeping James was the right thing to do, and we traded in Spencer and came home with The Van, now sporting the ACKV license plate.

There aren’t any white trains in the world of Thomas (at least, there weren’t back in 2007) so we always just called the van The Van. Very recently – in the last year or so – Little Miss Sunshine has felt sad that all our cars have names except the van, so she’s been pushing for Molly, which is a big yellow girl train on the Island of Sodor. It’s sort of half-sticking. We’ll see how it plays out.

I have to say, I have loved having a van. When the kids were little, it was so great having all three of them in a row behind us for easy access and comforting. When we go down to visit family, we just put the back row of seats down and you can throw anything in there (and, as Sir Monkeypants will tell you, I DO). Now that the kids are bigger we can easily take all three of them plus a friend each to the movies or camping or Funhaven. It’s the ULTIMATE PARTY CAR. And on the techy side, it’s been super reliable, it’s pretty good on gas for such a big vehicle, and it has a kick ass turning radius. It performed like a dream on our driving trip out to PEI a couple of years ago. LOVE IT.

On the sadder side though, Sir Monkeypants was left with James. James continued to serve us well and came in handy for smaller trips and times when one of us needed to take one kid somewhere, and the other needed to take the others somewhere else. But most of the time, James was being driven back and forth to work by Sir Monkeypants and theirs was a relationship of basic service, not true love. They went together, they came home together, but there was no thrill, no joy in the driving. And I always felt pretty bad about it, so when the time came to take action, I took it.

Packed up for PEI.
Packed up for PEI.

James

In 2002 we were expecting our first baby, and the Mazda was eight years old and was at that cuspy time when you need to decide if you’re going to put $3000 worth of work into it for another four years, or just give up and get a new car. I was strongly in favour of getting a new car because although I’d been driving the Mazda for a long time, I have never been a very good driver and the manual transmission continued to be something that took a lot of my attention. I was picturing myself with a baby in the back seat, trying to focus on shifting while he was crying, and it was not a pretty picture. I figured a new car with an automatic transmission would make things safer all around.

Because Sir Monkeypants had had carte blanche to buy any car he wanted the last time around, this time it was all me, and I knew just want I wanted – a Subaru. I wanted the reassurance of four-wheel drive for Ottawa winters and nothing anyone could say would convince me otherwise. Sir Monkeypants made me test drive a few other cars but I loved the Subaru Forester right away – it just FIT. We almost backed out when we found that my chosen colour, red, came with a barfy tan-yellow interior, but in the end even that wasn’t enough to deter me. We bought a nice candy-apple red 2003 Forester and I was super excited (although weirdly sad about saying goodbye to the Mazda – at least James inherited the 594 VTO license plate).

The new car was a four door model and it became our family car. It’s a surprisingly small car – I think of it as being a small SUV but it’s really a compact car with a fancy trunk. We have a lot of memories of taking that car back and forth to visit family in Toronto, two car seats in the back, stuff packed in around my feet, the kids’ feet, and piled to the ceiling in the back. Eventually we had to buy a rooftop box to accommodate the overflow and I’m totally embarrassed to admit I forgot the box was on there MORE THAN ONCE and got the car jammed up in an underground parking garage. GAH.

When the Captain turned three he became totally obsessed with Thomas The Tank Engine, and thus every vehicle he saw got named after the Thomas train of the corresponding colour. So, my red Forester became James, and the silver Integra became Spencer, and both names stuck.

Although James was never very good on gas and the dealership was totally annoying to get to for servicing, I absolutely loved that car. I loved the peppy way it merged on the highway and the sure footed way it zoomed around corners. I loved the way it slid into any parking space, anywhere, and how the truck was roomy enough for all my baby gear. I loved that it was easy to lift the kids in and out of their car seats and I loved, loved, loved the bright red colour. Sir Monkeypants felt about James the same way I felt about Spencer – that it was a drag to drive and just wrong in some way. But that didn’t matter because James was MY car, and I drove it just about all the time, everywhere.

Ah James. You were a good friend.

Spencer

By the time Sir Monkeypants came back from North Carolina, I had got to feeling a little spoiled about driving to work and didn’t want to go back to the bus (although I did, for a while). We decided it was time to think about getting a second car.

I felt like the Mazda was HIS car, and thus, I should get to pick out the new car. But whereas I didn’t really give a crap about what we got – I cared much more about the colour than anything else – Sir Monkeypants was INTO cars and cared deeply about what we got. He really, really wanted a sportier car to toodle around in and take for long drives and feel warmly about as young men seem to do with cars. So I agreed to let him choose the car, as long as I got to pick out the next one, no questions asked.

Sir Monkeypants did a lot of research and test driving, but really I think he knew from the beginning that he wanted an Acura Integra, and we ended up buying a 1998 model in silver. At first it was just The Integra, but tomorrow I will explain how this car came to be named Spencer, and Spencer is what we still call it now when we’re talking about it.

Sir Monkeypants really, really loved that car, and I really kind of disliked that car. Sir Monkeypants found it fun to drive and quick to respond and other driverly things, and he loved the hatchback that let us put a bunch of stuff in it without it being bulky or boxy, and he loved the colour and the totally rad stereo that had a CD player. I did not like that it was so low to the ground – getting in and out in heels was always dangerous, and when I did drive it, which was rare, I could barely see over the dashboard. For some reason I always found its standard transmission harder to handle than the Mazda, and I also didn’t like that it was a two-door model, so the doors were huge, and whenever we were parked somewhere it was always touch-and-go whether or not I was going to be able to squeeze out. But Sir Monkeypants was happy, and I had the Mazda to drive, so I rode in Spencer rarely and drove it almost never, and it was all good. Spencer saw us through years of drives down to Southern Ontario visit the folks, many camping trips, and a two-week long driving tour of the maritimes.

Spencer only really gave us trouble twice. Once, while parked in the driveway of our new townhouse at night, someone broke into it and stole the seats. The front bucket seats. Cut them right out – it was a professional job, not pranking teens, because the lock had been expertly popped and certain wires that needed to be cut and bolts that needed to be removed had been severed cleanly. Both Sir Monkeypants and I were pretty traumatized by this incident; new seats had to be ordered from Japan at a cost of $6000 (thankfully covered by insurance) and the poor Integra was out of commission for two months.

The other time was after we’d had it for a few years, and it developed a weird electrical problem. It was one of those things like you’d see on a comedy show on TV – when the back defroster was on and you turned the radio to a certain channel, the wipers wouldn’t work, that sort of thing. We kind of worked around it for a long time before deciding that it was worth fixing no matter the cost, so we took it in to a local garage and challenged them to find the short in the system. We agreed to pay for eight hours of labour – I think that was in the neighbourhood of $1200 – and the guy who took on the project ended up putting in at least three times that amount searching for it. He knew we wouldn’t be paying for it but it was like his white whale, he just couldn’t let it go. Eventually after three days he DID find it, and fixed it, and we were grateful, but I think he was just happy to have us take it out of the shop where he couldn’t see it anymore. Hope he’s able to sleep soundly at night now.

Spencer’s license place started with ACKV. We still have it, but it’s on a different car now.

Green Mazda Protege

I wanted to tell a little story about Sir Monkeypants’ current car, but somehow “a little back story” turned into paragraphs and paragraphs about the car before that and the car before that, and it practically became a novel. So because I need to write stuff down or else it keeps me up at night, I bring you an exciting (more or less) new serial:

A Brief Memoir Of Every Car We Have Ever Owned

…starting today with the Green Mazda Protege.

I call the Mazda “our” first car, but really it belonged to Sir Monkeypants before we were married. He bought it new off the lot about a year after we graduated from university, by far the biggest expenditure either of us had ever made. He was living in Ottawa at the time and I was in Toronto, and he called me long distance from the dealership desk at the very moment of signing the papers just for a last-minute verification that he was doing the right thing. I knew absolutely nothing about cars but assured him it sounded like a great deal.

The Mazda was a little 1994 four-door sedan, dark forest green with a tan interior. It had a manual transmission to save money, but on the other hand it came with some sort of “sports” package that included a lovely clear glass sunroof and a spoiler across the back of the trunk. I think it’s safe to say that Sir Monkeypants really liked that car. It was fairly reliable, although the air conditioning seemed to need a complete overhaul every three years or so, and one time my billowing hair got tangled in the sunroof mechanism while it was open and broke it (luckily fixed under warranty).

After we were married, Sir Monkeypants tried to teach me to drive it, because I didn’t drive standard, and we got to the point where I could be a serviceable designated driver but that was about it. I was happy to take the bus to work and have Sir Monkeypants drive everywhere else.

Around the time of our one year anniversary, Sir Monkeypants got sent to work in North Carolina for several months, and at the same time, my work moved to a far away office tower on the other side of town. It seemed silly for me to have an hour’s bus ride each way every day when we had a perfectly good car just sitting there, so Sir Monkeypants encouraged me to take the Mazda to work. I did, and eventually we got to be good friends, the Mazda and I.

Its license plate was 594 VTO. I’m impressed I remember that because at the time, I could not for the life of me commit it to memory. Sir Monkeypants made up a little meme to help me and I can’t remember what it was, but I do remember that the “9” stood for my cousin Emma, who was 9 at the time. She just turned 30 in October. SIGH.

Mrs. Robson

When I was in Grade 9 I had Mrs. Robson for English. She was young, in her 20s, and had a cool wardrobe and stylish hair and was hip and down-to-earth and relatable in way that instantly made her everyone’s favourite teacher. On the first day of classes, she did an exercise where we got together in groups and composed a list of questions to ask her, and I still remember how she answered a question about her favourite colour – “When I was younger, yellow, but now I think red,” and how all of us young teen girls nodded in agreement and made mental notes to get some red plastic dangly earrings just like hers as soon as possible.

One of our earliest assignments was to write a short story that featured only one character. I opened mine with my character, an old lady, sitting in front of a mirror brushing her hair, remembering when it was red instead of white. Mrs. Robson wrote in the margin, next to the first paragraph, “I like this.”

I often find myself thinking about that little bit of red pen scripted down the side. The memory of how it made me feel lives in a secret box in my heart along with the other great moments of my life. Of course I was happy to have pleased my teacher – I’m still a sucker for an A – but it also opened my eyes to what writing could be. It was about more than just assignments, answering questions, getting a good mark. It was about finding an audience, someone to read your words and really hear you, to think about your stories and decide that they like it. It was thrilling and intoxicating, a small seed of an idea that grew into something bigger.

When I was in Grade 12, Mrs. Robson was killed in a car accident on an icy winter morning while on her way to work. She’d only been married a couple of years and they had no children, though of course her funeral was packed with hundreds of kids, including myself. I was sad to have lost one of my favourite teachers but at the time I was too young and too self-centred to really understand what a tragedy it is for someone so young to be lost, or to understand how one kind comment can change a life. If I could go back and thank her, I would.

This morning I was trying to write something that would not come easily and when that happens, without me consciously reminding myself, I like this swims behind my eyes, and then I try again.