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Pickle Me This

September 23, 2016

Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby

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Today for #PictureBookFriday, I’m relinquishing book review duties to Harriet, who has started a blog to explore her fascination with hedgehogs and whose latest post is a review of Buddy and Earl and the Great Big Baby, by Maureen Fergus and Carey Sookocheff, which is the funniest Buddy and Earl book yet (and that is saying something). We love this series, and not just because it features an adorable hedgehogs (although that helps).

Check out the post and all things hedgehog here.

May 26, 2016

7 Years Today

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I continue to strongly feel that mothers should be free to write (respectfully) about their children and the lives they share together, though I suppose if my children were unusually vulnerable in some way my feelings about this would be more complicated (and they’re inevitably going to be more complicated anyway at some point in the future). I was talking about this with my friend Diana after we’d seen Vivek Shraya at the Festival of Literary Diversity discussing using her mother in her art and writing, and how she didn’t ask her mother’s permission for this. “Why can’t this license work both ways?” I wondered, though I can anticipate so many possible answers to that question. And Diana made a very good point about the dangers of mothers (it’s always mothers. I don’t suppose fathers get so tied up in knots about writing about their children, or maybe they just don’t, for various reason) writing about their children, which is that the writing might define the child before the child has a chance to define herself.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever done such a thing with Harriet. In writing or in person, I’m strongly resistant to the idea of defining my children (“she’s shy, she’s clever, she’s like this or like that”) because I don’t want such definitions to be the box they feel confined by. A person who is seven years old (or any age for that matter) should it feel absolutely possible to blossom into any kind of person, or not to be a “kind of” person at all. It certainly seems possible to me that this could happen anyway, because of how children are changing all the time. I’ve made a point of writing about both my girls on their birthdays, and from one year to the next, I don’t recognize the curious creature that went before. And that’s why writing it down is so important I think—the value of writing, “This is who she is right now.” Because tomorrow she’ll be someone else entirely, and the only thing that’s consistent is what a pleasure it is to watch her grow.

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Harriet is seven today, and has been obsessed with hedgehogs ever since Anakana Schofield came to visit and brought her a small stuffed toy of one. She fills pieces of paper with all the hedgehog facts she knows, and likes to quiz us. She likes to open conversations with, “What is your favourite animal?” just so you’ll ask her the same in return. Sometimes it is a bit much. Sometimes she doesn’t care if it is or it isn’t. She loves reading comics and graphic novels, and every trip to the grocery store involves a look at the magazine stands for new Archies. She is a forthright, strong-willed character, who manages to couple such qualities with being pretty easy-going—you can take her anywhere. Her imagination is enormous. She is besotted with her sister and so kind and patient with her in a way I appreciate more than I can ever express. She eats whatever I cook for her, which is new and wonderful, even if it’s beans and spinach fritters. She loves meals out and doing Mad Libs while we wait for our food to arrive. She reads in bed until she falls asleep every night. She is a perfectly average, well-performing student in every way, except that her reading level is over the top. No surprise as she forever has her face in a book. In the past year, she has learned to swim, to skate and ride her two-wheeled scooter, so I no longer fear (mock hysterically, or not so mock) that she has a spatial awareness and balance disorder. She is determined and works very hard to learn new things, which is the most important skill a person can have. She loves her friends at school. She is brave and goes forth when I drop her off at places where she knows nobody, and expect her to get along in a way that I don’t even expect of myself. She pays a lot of attention to the news on the radio, and I don’t always perceive how much she understands. There is a whole side of Harriet I don’t even know at all, depths and fears and fascination, and sometimes a bit comes up to the surface and it floors me because of how familiar and known she is to me otherwise. But as a parent, permitting a child that space to work things out for themselves is really important. She is kind most of the time, and tries to be good, which is as good as it gets. She loves Taylor Swift and wants to be either a rock star or a scientist when she grows up. She loves to sing and dance and put on performances. She likes school and loves her teacher, and is a staunch feminist, which is cool for somebody in grade one. She is old enough to read the Rainbow Fairy books by herself now, so that I don’t have to. (Phew!) She loves Ms Marvel and superheroes and gets really annoyed by lack of female representation in any context. She still reads picture books with us, which I’m so glad about, that she has not deemed herself above childish things yet. She likes cake and ice cream and is so much fun and up for anything, and someone one told me that the ages from 6-11 were the sweet spot of having children, with most development in check and hormones not yet kicking in—and it is true.

Last night our power went out after midnight and Harriet woke up in the pitch black, her nightlight out, and she started calling me in a panic. She’d flipped out of bed and was walking into the wall trying to regain her perspective, and there I found her. I led her out of her room into our front room (and, apropos of nothing, I thought it was so funny when she was discussing the possibility of being rich recently and said, “We would have a really big front room.” Not understanding that the really rich possibly have houses wide enough to accommodate more than one room at the front) where the windows were letting in light, though houses were dark all around us. In the apartment building north of Bloor that we can see from our couch, lit windows were scattered throughout. I pointed them out to help her find her bearings. “Look,” I said. “There’s light up there.” And how she hugged me as we sat there—so solidly and wholeheartedly. It was one of the nicest things that I have ever ever experienced.

The day I found out I was pregnant with Harriet, Stuart took my picture standing before those same windows, positive pregnancy test in hand, and I look ecstatic. And it’s remarkable now think of what was taking shape just then as the picture was being taken, all the things we had no idea about. That everything we were waiting for would be so far beyond our wildest dreams.

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May 16, 2016

How to Terrorize Your Child with Margaret Wise Brown

the-dead-birdWe were at the bookstore a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t narrow down my selection of picture books.

“Should we get,” I proposed to Harriet, “The Fox and the Star, by Coralie Bickford-Smith, or The Dead Bird, by Margaret Wise Brown.” I was emphatically waving the latter in the air.

Harriet pointed to the other one. “Why would I want to read a book about a dead bird?”

“Only because it’s a reissued book by a literary icon that dares to confront uncomfortable issues of mortality.”

“No,” she said.

I said, “Why?”

She said, “I don’t want to read books about dead things.”

She was still annoyed about a recent book I’d read her in which the Grim Reaper comes to tea and takes away the children’s grandmother, and everybody understands and feels good about the whole thing. Even though the children appear to left without a guardian. And even though the book doesn’t address the question of death coming for children, or young parents—would we put the kettle on for the reaper then? Though if someone wrote that book, I’d probably make Harriet read it too.

“So we’re getting The Dead Bird,” I told her. The illustrations are beautiful—by the award-winning illustrator of Last Stop On Market Street— and normalizing death is healthy and wasn’t there a dead bird in Sidewalk Flowers by Jon-Arno Lawson and Sydney Smith? And everybody liked that book.

And Harriet said, “No.”

The Dead Bird,” I said.

She said, “No dead bird.” And she seemed kind of immoveable, so I didn’t want to push it.

Two weeks later, we were at the library and I saw The Dead Bird on the new releases shelf.

“Now isn’t that lucky,” I said. “A brand new copy of The Dead Bird, and nobody else has picked it up yet. It must be fate. The book was meant for us.”

“Do you think nobody has picked it up,” said Harriet, “because nobody would ever, ever want to read it?”

But I pooh-poohed her. Dropped the book into our library bag. A red-letter day—we’d brought The Dead Bird Home. What a find!

I told her, “I can’t wait to read this.”

She said, “I can.”

I told her, “Just wait. It’s about death. And dying! Come on, you’re going to like it.”

“I won’t,” she said.

I said, “You’ll see.”

Today I told her, “I’m writing a blog post about you reading The Dead Bird.”

She said, “I’m still not going to read it.”

“But how am I going to write the blog post if you don’t?

She told me, “I read it already, actually. By myself.”

“And did you like it?”

She said, “No. It’s about a dead bird. What’s to like?”

I admitted to her, “You know, the New York Times Book Review shares your assessment of it. And of the Grim Reaper book also.”

She said, “I told you.”

I said to her, “Who are you? Are you even my child? Ursula Nordstrom would be rolling in her grave if she could hear you right now.”

And she said, “Yeah. And then Margaret Wise Brown would go ahead and write a picture book about it. And then wouldn’t you like to go and try to make me read that too.”

“You’re not going to let me read you The Dead Bird then.”

And Harriet said, “No.”

March 13, 2016

We did it.

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“WE DID IT. WE FUCKING MADE IT. AND LOOK AT HOW AMAZING THESE GIRLS ARE? LOOK AT HOW MIRACULOUS AND INTERESTING AND SMART AND FUNNY AND WILD AND BRILLIANT THESE BABES BE!? AND SOME DAYS ARE REALLY FUCKING HARD. AND SOME DAYS ARE REALLY FUCKING BEAUTIFUL. AND ALL OF THE DAYS… EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM ARE WORTH IT. THEY HAVE ALWAYS BEEN WORTH IT.” —Rebecca Woolf, Girl’s Gone Child

I never had twins (thank goodness; one baby at a time absolutely pushed me to my limits) but the post from which I quote above really resonated with me. Iris turns two-and-three-quarters next month, which means her third birthday’s on the horizon, and we’ve recently given up diapers, some days we don’t need a nap, she (usually) behaves perfectly well in a restaurant, and today we all went out for afternoon tea. For no occasion, and yet it seems like all the occasions—my novel is finished and gone into copyedits; Stuart (hopefully!) becomes Canadian next week; it’s March Break; how doesn’t like celebrating return from a tropical locale with a lavish lunch. And because Iris is finally old enough to partake. We’re about to leave the baby years behind us, and I can’t think of a better reason to celebrate than that, the future unfolding as it should.

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We never could have dreamed up Iris—she’s a full fledged mould breaker, hilarious, mischievous, irascible, loving, kind, silly and always paying attention. If you ask her anything, she’ll answer you: “Pooks.” We don’t know what pooks is, the definition ever-shifting, whatever is convenient to hang it on. She loves her sister, reading Go Dog Go and talking about nipples. She likes exclaiming, “Goodness gracious,” when she’s not saying, “Pooks.” She knows more about immigration than most two-year-olds: “Daddy’s going to be a Canadian,” she says. “I’m a Canadian already.” She is a favourite pet of Harriet’s classmates and happily ensconced in a class of her own at playschool, where she plays in drama, paints pictures, learns songs and stories. Her favourite thing is singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. She still likes to climb up onto the table and jump up and down. If she’s hungry, she can be trusted to go fetch a snack, no matter how (seemingly) unattainable that snack might be. She likes reading picture books and gets annoyed when we read books without pictures, goes and throws toys on the floor to get our attention. When she does something wrong, most of the time she is willing to say sorry, but always follows up her apology by asking, “And you say, ‘It okay, Iris,’ okay?”

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Harriet will very soon be six-and-three-quarters, which was the age I was at when I discovered there was such a thing as fractions. She will forever to us seem old and wise, just as Iris is forever little, and part of the pleasure I take in the prospect of Iris’s third year was all the fun we had the summer that Harriet was that age, when all at once the days were longer and the world was bigger and we could do almost anything. But she was so little then, I realize now, particularly compared to where she is today. She is bright and articulate and forthright and ambitious, and imagines that she can make anything at all. When she grows up, she wants to be a scientist or a rock star, although she’s leaning toward the former. She loves Taylor Swift, and dancing, and identifies as a feminist. Yesterday we were at Value Village sorting through t-shirts, and I held up one that said, “Girls Rock.” “Okay,” she said. “I mean, it’s what I believe.” She is strong and brave and loves heroic tales of awesome girls. Though she also loves Archie Comics and Betty and Veronica, so she contains multitudes. She’s nuts about the Amulet series, the Narnia books (when girls are in the story), is still more partial to graphic novels than novels proper, and is determined to invent a series of feminist superheroes who do not necessarily fight for justice in their underpants.

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We went shopping yesterday, because what better way to mark the explosion of crocuses across the street than buying shoes for our children’s ever growing feet. It was our biannual expedition to the world of commerce, with purchases of nightgowns too and suburban dinner at chain restaurant (with Jello for dessert!), always a big occasion—we get to drive in a car and everything. Plus a stop at Value Village for amazing clothes for growing girls, which was really an excuse to go on a mug-hunt, but the pickings were slim in the kitchenware dept. Alas. We got what we went for though, and I will never cease to be grateful that we can afford shoes for our children—rain-boots, sneakers and sandals too, which is a small bundle. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to have to struggle for that, but nor can I imagine how we got here after all—to be grown people who buy small children tiny new shoes year after year, though they become less tiny with every season.

January 5, 2016

Lottie: Empowering Girls from Outer Space

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We discovered Lottie Dolls over a year ago, and their premise intrigued me. A proper alternative to Barbie, designed to empower girls and their play. I wrote about them here (and check out the pictures! Iris was still a baby! Harriet was so little). It could have been a one-time thing, but I return to Lotties because now it’s my girls who are crazy about them. They’re the one toy, along with Legos, that gets returned to again and again, and they play with them together, which I love so much. We have five or six of them, and received more for Christmas, along with two new Lottie outfits, including the Superhero Lottie suit shown above, which has proven very popular—this is the one Lottie who never gets her clothes changed. When Harriet and Iris received Christmas money from their grandfather last week, they knew what they wanted to buy with it—more Lotties. And so we’re currently awaiting Rockabilly Lottie and Spring Celebration Ballet Lottie in the mail, expected delivery scheduled for tomorrow. Everybody is very excited.

Though we’ve also got our eye on Stargazer Lottie, who was sold out from Indigo.ca when we made our order last week. (Darn!). Like all the Lottie dolls, she’s designed around what she can do and be rather than how she looks (although admittedly, once they’re indoctrinated into Harriet’s play, the Lottie dolls also take on peculiar new identities…) I was so interested to read this post about how Stargazer Lottie was designed in consultation with an astronomer, and even more thrilled to learn that a Stargazer Lottie doll was currently in space with British astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station.

And most remarkable? That none of this would have happened at all without a six-year-old girl from Comox, British Columbia, who helped dream up the Stargazer Lottie doll. I showed the video below to Harriet who had her mind blown, and then went to put on her own dress with a space print and proceeded to have her head in the stars for the rest of the day, totally inspired.

November 4, 2015

Butterflies

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As much as I cherish the feeling of my children’s hands in mine, I do so love watching them race ahead of me down the sidewalk. I love their freedom, speed, their unfettered exuberance, the possibility that their feet might indeed sprout wings. Their sense of entitlement that this world, this city, is open to them. And I like trusting too that they’ll know to stop at the corner. Every time.

IMG_20151031_165340 (1)But there was something remarkable about watching them fly down the sidewalk on Saturday, Halloween, butterfly wings billowing out behind them, colourful spans. The most low-maintenence costumes in our family history of Halloweens—we had one pair of wings already, and borrowed the other from our cousin. We made antennae out of pipe-cleaners, styrofoam balls, and headbands. Ordinary clothes beneath. I was terrified that all this would backfire the night before and Harriet would decide that what she really wanted to be was a fiery glittery invisible incandescent humdingermabobber. Or Elsa. But she didn’t. And whatever Harriet wanted to be, Iris wanted to be too.

Butterflies are special to us. We can trace this back to ancient times, when Iris was a small baby and was given a dress with a butterfly print that was designed to become a shirt as baby grew. As Iris is small, it’s possible she’ll be wearing it forever. She loves it, and calls it her fuff-eye shirt, and now we all call butterflies fuff-eyes because  this is what happens when you live with a two-year-old. And obviously, we like to read about them also.

We love love love Julie Worsted’s How To, which has a real butterfly or two, but also has a girl in fuff-eye wings on the “how to go fast” page. (From experience, I can say that wings are an excellent suggestion.)

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Then there is Elly McKay’s Butterfly Park, about gardens and community, and mostly about McKay’s exquisite illustrations, which my children get lost in.

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It’s also been a pleasure to revisit Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, a book we bought in July when gardening fever was at its height.

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Autumn seemed a long way off then, so we’re re-reading it now with entirely new eyes—even if the butterflies are gone.

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And butterflies always have been more than a little bit fleeting, haven’t they? Inherently ephemeral.

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One of my favourite butterfly books is Bye Bye Butterflies, by our friend Andrew Larsen, which came out just before Harriet started preschool. And I’ve always linked the story to our own experience, in two ways. One, that this was a book about a kid going to school for the very first and beginning to make his way in the world—it was amazing to be on the cusp of that. And also that Charlie’s adventure caring for the butterflies was analogous to our own lives as parents. That these amazing, ever-changing creatures are only with us for a very short time before they find their wings and fly away—an achievement that makes us “a little happy and a little sad all at once.” Which is true.

But, yes, how joyful is watching them soar.

October 7, 2015

No wonder the children grew peaky

the-borrowers“So he didn’t have your advantages,” went on Homily breathlessly, “and just because the Harpsichords lived in the drawing room—they moved in there, in 1837, to a hole in the wainscot just behind where the harpsichord used to stand, if ever there was one, which I doubt—and were really a family called Linen-Press or some such name and changed it to Harpsichord—”

“What did they live on,” asked Arietty, “in the drawing room?”

“Afternoon tea,” said Homily, “nothing but afternoon tea. No wonder the children grew up peaky. Of course in the old days it was better—muffins and crumpets and such, and good rich cakes and jams and jellies, And there was an old Harpsichord who could remember sillabub of an evening. But they had to do their borrowings in such a rush, poor things. On wet days, when the human beings sat all afternoon in the drawing room, the tea would be brought in and taken away again without a chance of the Harpsichords getting near it—and on fine days it might be taken out into the garden. Lupy has told me that, sometimes, there were days and days when they lived on crumbs and water out of the flower vases. So you can’t be too hard on them; their only comfort, poor things, was to show off a bit and wear evening dress and talk like ladies and gentlemen…” —Mary Norton, The Borrowers

(We’re reading this right now and I’m loving it so much. I don’t know that I’ve ever read it before. When I was a child, I was into the American knockoff, The Littles, but I had no taste, and Mary Norton is so clever, funny and bright. I also like our copy because the cover is by Marla Frazee, who is one of my favourites. And sort of related, we recently finished reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, which went over very well, except that Iris now walks around saying apropos of nothing, “Aslan die?” and I don’t think she knows what die means, or even Aslan for that matter. But Harriet is quite enchanted and now we’re going to read the whole series, and tonight we were reading a new book called Written and Drawn by Henrietta, by TOON Books, and there was a Narnia reference, and I haven’t seen Harriet that excited since she found out she had a wobbly tooth.)

September 22, 2015

The Day the Crayons Came Home

The Day the Crayons Came Home

True confession: I don’t love The Day the Crayons Came Home, by Drew Daywelt and Oliver Jeffers, quite as much as I loved its predecessor, The Day the Crayons Quit. The premise is the same but it’s just not as fresh. However my children are quite nuts for the book, and during the first few days after we bought it, Harriet insisted on taking it to bed every night. So when I heard about Small Print TO’s Crayon Creator’s Club event this weekend, I knew we had to be there.

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And so on Saturday morning, we headed down to The Lillian Smith Library (which is the most special twenty-year-old building in the universe) and my children posed with the enormous crayons adorning the entrance. We were able to buy a copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon (can you believe we didn’t have it yet) and listened to the story, before the children were let loose to do some purple crayon-ing of their own. (We also learned that Harold actually grew up to be a graffiti artist, ala Bansky.)

After that, we reassembled for The Day the Crayons Came Home, which is about Duncan’s crayons that have been lost, abandoned or broken over the years—left behind on holidays, stuck between couch cushions, puked up by the dog. In the end [SPOILER ALERT] Duncan welcomes his colouring implements home by building them a crayon fort that meets all their special needs now that they’re in altered states. And then each of the children got to work constructing a crayon fort of her or his own.

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Next up: the door prize. Guess who was quite thrilled to win a crayon that is taller than she is? (And she doesn’t mind in the slightest that it doesn’t actually colour. If it were made of wax, it would have been even to carry home than it already was.)

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All in all, it was a most rewarding morning at one of our favourite places. We posed out by one of the gryphons for posterity.

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And speaking of Lillian H. Smith and crayons, I’m quite excited about the All the Libraries colouring book by Daniel Rotsztain, coming next month from Dundurn Press, featuring drawings of every single Toronto Public Library Branch for your colouring pleasure. You can learn more about the project and see some drawings here.

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September 10, 2015

It begins.

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I got pregnant at nearly the exact same time as Harriet started playschool three years ago, when she was three years old. And I so vividly remember those precious mornings, the time, rushing home to rescue my tea from under the cozy and sit down to get some work done, not wasting a single moment. To be alone. Although the time did not seem so luxurious: I was in my first trimester and would pass out every night not long after Harriet did. If I hadn’t had those mornings, I would have had no time to get any work done. After Christmas when my energy levels had returned, I got a job writing a book about Arctic exploration, the gold rush, mountain climbing, and parkas, and by then my days of freedom were numbered anyway. So I spent that winter reading Pierre Berton on the Klondike and listening to Iris by the Split Enz over and over again, dreaming of my baby as she kicked away inside me—so you see, I was really not so alone at all.

It seemed like the smallest window, that year. I knew that with our new baby, we’d soon be thrown back into newbornland and babyhood, and we’d have to find our way out again. That it would be a long before I once  more found myself at home alone at 9:30 in the morning, the teapot still warm. I edited an entire book as the baby slept on my chest, for heaven’s sake. And now, here I am. And dare I say it: it all went by so fast?

This morning I dropped Harriet off at Grade One, which she is enjoying immensely so far, and then Iris and I trekked down the street for her to begin her first day of playschool. The playschool she has known since she was a fetus: she spent her first year in her carrier as I did co-op shifts three times a month. By the end of the year, she was scooting around the room like a champion. It has always been familiar to her. We love the teachers. Last year when Harriet was no longer a student there, we still visited our playschool friends often, and we’d play with them at the park.

Drop-off was not without its drama. Iris was not happy about my departure, and while I wanted to get out of there and trusted she was in very good hands, I’m a bit worried about the teachers who’ll have to deal with her. Though I assure myself that perhaps like all parents, I’m imagining that my child is more unique and particular than she actually is. I’m crossing my fingers that they’ve seen it all before. And that she’ll have a wonderful morning.

And now here I am, right back where I’ve been before except that this is the way forward instead of just a blip. It’s even time to put the kettle on. It’s time to get some work done. To figure out this new routine, just what to do with all this space and this quiet.

See also: “When I got home again, I didn’t know what to do because there was so much that I wanted to do.” 

September 7, 2015

Cake and Back to School

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Back to school tomorrow! Which means that we spent much of today at the CNE, which was excellent, and the prize-winning celery was as wonderful as I’d hoped for. (It’s basically the reason I go.) And we are so very hot, the weekend spent dripping with sweat and entertaining people in high humidity. Last night our best friends from kindergarten came for dinner, one of our now-regular togethers that involves too much wine and so much cake. Meeting these families was one of the best parts of last year, and I will miss them as our children move onto new classes and schools and our daily lives are no longer as connected. Although friendships can and do endure, as evidenced by tonight when my friends and former roommates Kate and Erin (and Kate’s husband Paul) came over last minute for pizza. The last-minute thing remarkable because Kate and Paul live in Vancouver, and we’ve not seen them in three years. But here they were tonight, with a cake even.  And what a cake? If my book ends up looking half as excellent as this one, I will be satisfied. (Apparently the image was inspired by my Mitzi Bytes pinterest board, because there is indeed such a thing.) I have the most terrific friends. Anyway, the convenient thing about all of this is that Harriet’s first day of school lunch is leftover pizza and cake, so her year is off to an excellent start. Wish us luck tomorrow as all the madness and fun begins!

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