2014: The year of evoked potential

In medicine, evoked potential is “an electrical (response) recorded from the nervous system … following presentation of a stimulus.”

A practical example: you have a seizure, your neurologist gets oddly enthusiastic about replicating the experience, and next thing you know you’re hooked up to an EEG with a bunch of lights being flashed in your eyes at ever-more-annoying intervals.

Spending the next three days washing adhesive out of your hair is the most pleasant part of the experience, is what I’m getting at.

Though the actual thing is a (clinically necessary) pain in the ass, I’ve always loved the lexical thing: evoked potential. It speaks to something that is present but sequestered, something known to some but not to all, a latent capability that can come to life given a very specific set of circumstances.

That was my 2014.

Much less amazing (to me) than anything I actually accomplished is the fact that there exist in the world people who are able to perceive, beneath whatever combination of invincibility and insecurity we adopt as daily habit, something worth a second look. Couple that simple act of noticing with a desire to help – or maybe a desire to be helped, or who knows what – and next thing you know, potential is being evoked all over the place.

I’m not big on resolutions, as you know. Nor gratitude, as you also know.

But I know that my year would have been measurably less exciting, chaotic, challenging and fun had others not evoked, had potential not existed in the first place.

I am thankful for those people and I would like to be one of those people. That’s about as close as I’m likely to get to a resolution.

2014 has given me many things, among them the tummy-level suspicion that if we’ve been put here to do anything vis-à-vis our fellow human beings, evoking potential is probably as good as it gets.

So let’s go out and do that, shall we?

Dear Walter: You’ll be great

Yesterday, Seve decided that he wanted to write a letter to his bear, Walter … so he did.  As I described it on Facebook:

“The letter included Walter’s name, Seve’s name, a drawing of each, a drawing of a house and a drawing of a cave. Oh, and a drawing of some hydro wires. Then he made a bracelet for Walter, and included a set of keys (not ones we actually use). Then we weighed it (52 g), so we had to put five stamps (stickers) on it.  Very productive afternoon.”

Inside the letter, he traced the letters I’d written.  On the envelope, he printed them all by himself.  I posted pictures of both, and his grandma (my mom) made a sweet and benign comment about how Seve is a “budding writer.”

letter_to_walter_1 letter_to_walter_2







So I read that comment and, being a writer, reflexively started to compose the expected reply, about how writing is a terrible career, pay is lousy and wouldn’t wish it upon my enemies, you know the drill.

Except that: it’s none of those things.

It’s not a job for someone who wants to clock in and 9:00 AM and be out the door by 5:01 PM.  (But: my commute to the kitchen table takes 20 seconds and costs me what, one calorie?)

It’s not ideal for someone who needs a stable and predictable income. (Though: it can be, if you hustle, and if you’re hot hustle-prone, no kind of freelance or contractual work will suit.)

And it’s not something I’d wish upon my enemies, because if I had any, I suppose I wouldn’t want them to have fun, something that spending one’s time working with words most definitely is.

I’m reminded of something that happened to me when I was pretty young.  I was sitting on the steps of a house on 6th Street East in Fort Frances, Ontario, which meant it had to have been, at latest, the summer before I turned seven.  I’d written some little story and a neighbouring parent commented that I should be a writer when I grow up.

And I said: “Okay, but I only want to write fiction books, because then I can just make things up and I don’t have to do as much research.”

And then s/he said: “Actually, fiction writers have to do a lot of research, too.”

And then I said, in my head: “Well, fuck that.”

Because I was six and not a fan of hard work, and here I am 35 years later and I can’t say that impulse to otiosity has changed all that much.  Or has it?  I just took 30 seconds right now to make sure I was using “otiosity” correctly.

Anyway.  I feel like that one innocent conversation shut things down for me for a long time.  I didn’t stop writing but it did cease to exist in my own Arena of Aspiration, and to this day, the descriptor “writer” — even though it leads off my own dusty Twitter bio and satisfies Revenue Canada that I’m not earning a living through less salutary means — skeeves me out a little.

So if you’re going to have a conversation with a six-year-old this summer, and I do hope that you do, just know that what you say matters and echoes on.  Even if you’re right and that small boy fixated on saving each sidewalk-stranded earthworm does go on to be a veterinarian, maybe spare him the comment about euthanistic inevitabilities.  He’ll figure it out on his own.

We all do.

A letter to my son on his first last day of school

My Beaster.

Do you remember your first day of school?  You were still only three.  I think back on my own earliest memories and most of them do involve school, though I can’t remember my very first day.  It lies just out of reach for me now, more than 35 years later.

I remember picking your Kindergarten package up at your school in the dead of winter and being so excited to know that you had this experience ahead of you.  I took this picture:

beaster_kindergarten_regI showed it to your Papa and he he said something like, “He has no idea what’s going to hit him.”  I thought that was a pretty cynical take on things.  Yes, you were a pretty anxious kid — I also remember taking you to to visit the school a year ago, in late June, so that you could see the classroom and be less afraid, and when you were looking inside the teeny-tiny in-room bathroom, the school bell went off and scared the bejeezus out of you and you cried and clinged and wouldn’t let go until we were back outside — yes, you were still very young, but I thought you would be ready when the time came.

And you were.

We had a rough start.  Your classroom wasn’t ready yet, so you were in a different room for a couple of weeks until all the construction was complete.  You really loved that first room and were so sad to leave it.  You didn’t like the new bathroom, with its loud, industrial toilet.  There were a few accidents, a special sticker chart, until you felt more confident.  I remember being annoyed every time, because I knew you could do it.  It made me sad to think that maybe you didn’t know that, too.

Now, on the last day of school, I’m writing myself a list of things not to forget to bring home.  As we walked to school we listed the ones we could think of: lunch box, hat, Dr. Seuss book, inside shoes.  I’d forgotten until just now that you’ll have an extra change of clothes to bring home, too.  I can’t remember what the extra outfit was.  I know the pants will be two inches too short by now.  You haven’t needed those extra clothes in so, so long.

beater_first_dayBack in September, we went off to school, hand-in-hand, and I was a little worried for you, but not sad.   Not sad in the usual way — tears, and “my baby is growing up so fast” and all that.  I thought you were ready and I was excited for you to go.  That’s what I remember.

It doesn’t happen often but now that you are closer to five than four, you will sometimes get upset and will say to me, “Mama, I’m just sad,” and we’ll have a cuddle and try to think of some things that will make us feel happier.  I think you’re as surprised by the randomness of your feelings as I am.  That, my boy, you get from me.

Out of nowhere, today, on your last day of school, I am ridiculously sad.  It’s like I saved up all the traditional first-day tears and today is the day of release.  I’m sad you’ll have a different teacher (your new teacher will be lovely, I know it, but change isn’t really our thing).  I’m sad that your best friend won’t be in your class next year, though I’m glad you’ll have an opportunity to be fully your own person.

I will miss having you home for lunch, even though you’ve stayed at school for lunch since late last year.  I will miss making you lunch every morning.   You probably find that hard to believe, for all the panic it seemed to generate on a daily basis.  On the inside, I loved it.  I loved making sure you always had a little treat, like a cookie, and I wondered every morning what you would eat first (the cookie, I figured).

I am sorry for a lot of things that happened this first year — for the times you went to school upset because the grown-ups were arguing, for how unsympathetic — even mean —  I was to you that (one and only) time you got sent to the principal’s office.  Im very sorry our mornings were filled with so many “hurry up”s and “stop dawdling”s and “LET’S GO”s.

I hope when you remember the summer that lies ahead, you will have heard more “slow” and less “hurry,” more “sing” and less “quiet.”  That is my hope for you, and for me.

Before I had children — and you were, let’s not forget, the child I thought I might never have — I would read things like “heart filled to bursting” and the meaning, the full feeling of it, was lost on me.

Today, on your first last day of school, my heart is filled to bursting.  My heart, and my eyes.

I love you too too,



Sing to your babies

This morning I woke up to some very sad news: that Pete Seeger had died.

Credit: Annie Leibovitz. Pete Seeger, Clearwater Revival, Croton-on-Hudson, NY, 2001And I know it’s partly the fading fever at work — buh-bye H1N1, please do let the door hit you in the arse on the way out — and the fact that I’ve eaten nothing but popsicles for days, but I’ve been crying, actually crying about this on-and-off today.  Both my parents are still alive so I haven’t been hit  squarely with grief, but other family members have died without so soppy a send-off.

I think the reaction — as only one other person on the planet, my sister, will understand — is largely a result of the fact that one of my still-living parents, my dad, used to sing us Pete Seeger songs at bedtime, when we were small.  And not-so-small.  We were cute and willing to fake neediness if it got us another story or song (Note to self: be on the look-out for similar tactics coming from local anti-sleep activists).

I didn’t realize until I was much older how message-laden those songs were, how firm a foundation we were being given in the principles of equity and action, under the guise of a lullaby.

More recently, I saw a documentary about Pete Seeger on PBS.  They interviewed a person who spoke about his home; apparently he had a house on the Hudson River in an area that had since been declared a state park, so there was no further development.  The interviewee said that he used to visit his parents, who lived across the river, and he’d look out from their place, and he could see if the lights were on, and he’d “know if Mr. Seeger was home.”

Today, the lights will be dark, but they glow just as bright across all rivers, now that Mr. Seeger is home.

And tonight, if you have the exquisite opportunity to do so, sing to your babies.  They will remember it all their lives.

If you think I’m talking about you here, yeah, you’re probably right.

If you think I’m talking about you here, yeah, you’re probably right.