Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood

Keep cool till after school

In a perfect metaphor for the worst job market that university graduates have faced in years, it's drizzling on Graduation Day – or, as they confusingly call it here, Commencement. Ten thousand graduates of Columbia are, as I type, ritually commencing their post-academic lives on a rainy campus four blocks north (that photo was taken yesterday, I suspect, or photoshopped to produce a blue sky). They're decked out in mortarboards (or fancy octagonal hats for the PhDs) and academic gowns of a deeply unflattering blue-grey, a colour that is either meant to approximate the grimy cerulean of a New York sky, or was picked out by some colour-blind accidental sadist. Since most of them are young and perky and bright-eyed, they'll look good in the photos, as everyone does on ceremonial days like this.

It will be nice to have had that moment in the, er, sun before they plunge into the grim job-hunt. I swear I saw a McDonald's booth outside the imposing campus gates (the motto of the arts faculty has ever been "Illocum Tuberas Visne?" which is as close as my decaying schoolgirl Latin can get to "Would you like fries with that?") although maybe they're not hiring either, in the light of the latest mad cow news. Gone are the golden days of youth power in the boardroom, all-day access to the office bong, and bringing your dog to work whether you had one or not. The papers have been full of stories about graduating seniors (which is to say twenty-two year olds; senior year is your fourth and final year, not your age category) being forced to accept jobs that don't actually pay all that much, or moving back in with Mum and Dad, or, worst horror of all, applying to grad school in record numbers.

As a well-seasoned grad school connoisseur (or graddict, as I think of myself on days when it feels nothing short of depraved to still be in school), I marvel at the optimism and categorical blindness that makes five or more years of your life living on little more than the dole look like a good economic choice. It's not. But it's a plausible lifestyle choice, albeit one much much closer to the desperate wanna-be actor scenario than I'd ever considered before reading this discouraging take on the perennial problem of jobs for newly minted PhDs. Actually, that article cheered me up a little – eight percent of grad students end up with a job like their favourite professor's! Compared to the odds of making it through to the final of American Idol, that's pretty much a dead cert. I'm going to shelve my singing career and stick with finishing the dissertation.

Which is hard work, actually. Really hard work. But I've been in good company. Over the last six months, while I've been grinding out a chapter and a half and gazing out for inspiration at the rooftops and water-towers, the building over the road has been undergoing a spot of renovation. Like many early 20th C apartment buildings (and many a botoxed Manhattanite), it has a tautly symmetrical ornate face that it presents to the street, and a fairly plain and serviceable behind. If you take a close look at the tops and sides of the buildings, you can see that they've almost all been rebricked, many of them several times. You can tell from the brighter colour where the old brick leaves off and the new bricking starts – it's a little like toupee-spotting.

The rebricking is a complex job, which involves first setting up scaffolding along the street to catch any falling bricks (and there is never a block without a scaffold on it – no sooner does one come down than another goes up), and then installing what Busytot calls, with the authority of an engineering graduate, the "up-down." The up-down is, of course, what the men go up and down on to get to the workzone, and there are smaller auxiliary up-downs to carry buckets of bricks up and down. The up-down over the road is about to come down, I suspect, as over the last several months the men have stripped back the old red bricks, replaced the breeze blocks inside, and then lovingly reinstalled and repointed the brick facing. There was something very soothing about watching them click the blocks into place, and about the lovely finitude of the job. On good days, my writing felt like that: mortar, brick, mortar, brick, next row, new page. And on bad days, it's like rescuing the knitting basket you accidentally left alone in a room for several hours with a clutch of feral kittens.

Days like that I console myself with the thought that I'm a two-career woman: academic wool-disentangling is just my day job, but my vocation is toddler-wrangling. I haven't written much here lately about the joys of childrearing, but every time I do I get floods of mail, which I love -- especially the ones from those who have snatched thirty seconds of respite from their own front-line job in the toddler trenches. These are the understanding correspondents who know that if I don't write back, it's just because I have had to dash off to attend to the small matter of Busytot standing on the fifth floor windowsill, the better to admire the up-down... or innovatively serving himself refreshments from the convenient knee-height ever-flushing water-fountain in the bathroom. Yes, that one.

Today being a rainy day, this morning's playgroup didn't happen in the park as planned, but in the apartment, with six toddlers, three babies, and half a dozen adults dispersed throughout the various rooms. It was sort of like one of those cocktail parties I imagined I'd throw on a weekly basis when I moved to New York, only at ten in the morning, with nothing but pineapple juice in the pineapple juice. Based on my morning of youth-market trend-spotting, I'd say that hot activities for the under-twos this season include: stuffing oneself full of cranberry scones; faux-cooking with incredibly realistic and well-drawn (if I say so myself) cardboard vegetables; industriously peeling the paper wrappers off twenty-four crayons; and stuffing assorted dolls and soft animals into suitcases and hauling them round the apartment like so many pint-sized serial killers. Musically, we started off the morning with David Kilgour and Superette, and as things wound down, Graham Wardrop's Rest Time: Whakata was just the ticket with its mellow guitar versions of lullabies interspersed with peaceful New Zealand birdsong. I pictured myself drifting off to sleep in a tramping hut, far, far, far away from the aftereffects of rampaging urban toddlers in a small apartment on a rainy day.

Busytot was pretty tuckered out too, and is currently napping like someone who's getting a PhD in napping. He is a delight these days, now that the pesky molars are largely out of the way (hint to anyone who's never understood why children sometimes cry pitifully for hours on end when teething – get a torch and have a lookie into the maw of a compliant toddler, if you can find one -- those things are fearsomely sharp, nothing like the blunt ground-down specimens in grown-up mouths). Climbing is the latest fad, and the other day he clambered up the metal spiderweb thingy in the playground with a water-bottle in one hand, for that extra degree of difficulty. He's also very concerned to fit in with the In Crowd, which is to say the gang of two-year-olds that he runs with. This has its uses. Various household items are noted for their similarity to friends' possessions, so intransigent last stands along the lines of "No Shoes!" or "No Milk!" can be parentally finessed by tempting the little fashion slave with what appear to be "Isis' shoes," or "Micah's milk cup," at which point the holy object is reverently adopted and crisis is averted. I sometimes feel like we're running a trade in religious relics (fingerbone of St Antony, skull of John the Baptist as a boy, sort of thing).

One of my correspondents asked if toddler-wrangling is really the rich experience that everyone argues that it is. Oh, it is rich, in so many ways. I don't need to spend money on an MBA or a law degree, for example. I'm all prepared for my post-child-raising comeback as a latter-day Madeline Allbright after my time in the negotiation mines with an eighteen-month-old. You try telling him why he can't drink his milk with straw. We have straws. He knows where they are. There's a precedent involved, as straws have in fact been deployed in similar situations before. And nobody else is lining up to use them. What's in it for me to deny him the straw, except some sort of fascist imperialist power trip? And incidentally, how loudly might he have to hypothetically scream before someone calls the Child Protection Squad? And so on, ad infinitum, all conveyed in winning little interrogative three-word sentences ("Straw? Milk? Bubbles?").

And then there are the moments of heart-melting surrealist intensity, products of the alchemical interaction of a child's whims and a parent's hard-wired urge to make someone happy, quickly, somehow, anyhow. Like the other morning, when the little lad suddenly realized that his father and I wear something other than fire-engine pajamas when lolling about the house in the morning. Quite reasonably, he wanted a lavalava of his own, and the request escalated quickly to urgent proportions. "Arba arba? More? Jams? Arba arba?" A spot of genius thinking on my part (before my cup of tea, even) and, shortly thereafter, a perfectly delighted small fellow sat down to breakfast with a checkered tea-towel wrapped around his ample little puku, looking like nothing so much as a stunt double for Dobby, the hapless Harry Potter house-elf, only much cuter and much much MUCH better fed.