The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Novel Energy

by Patricia Parkinson

Writing comes to me in spurts. Even when I don’t think I’m writing, I still write everyday, even if it’s only twenty words or I’m editing, which I am trying desperately not to do, and you know what? It’s easier to not edit a novel as I have become so immersed in the story and what’s happening to the characters and I feel responsible for leaving them, on the brink of something, wearing bad clothes or crying or just sitting, waiting for me to write what they will do next.

I wrote more words on my novel the past two weeks than at anytime before. Roughly four thousand words! It was exhilerating! I felt the words rushing from me, spoke the dialogue aloud, played each part, every nuance and inflection of voice, of characters I am attempting to create, and tapped away at the same time and excitement overtook me and then I stopped.

I need the energy to come back to me. It will. Look out.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Young Reader Tasty Book Goodness As Chosen by Me Based on My Long Ago Remembrances of Tasty Books

by Melissa Bell

These are not fresh books. They are old, and a few are very hard to get your hands on. But if one of them should drop into your lap one day, enjoy!

1. The Winter of Enchantment. I keep trying to find it on eBay. It's been out of print for ages, and existing copies are rare. But this book sure does have its fans. It was magical and clever and wonderful and I hope I get to revisit it one of these days. If you should happen upon a copy of it somewhere, read it. Then let me borrow it. Please. Thanks.
2. The Dolls' House. Rumer Godden. I must have read this one about 12 times.
3. The Nickel-Plated Beauty. A family of kids must earn enough money by Christmas to buy a stove..
4. Tom's Midnight Garden. More magical stuff.
5. TV Thompson. Also magic, but more high-techy than say the clock in #4.
6. James and the Giant Peach.
7. The All-of-a Kind Family books. Jeez, these were great.
8. All the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. All of them.
9. The Secret World of Og. Thanks, Pierre Berton
10. The Nancy Drew Cookbook.
11. The Tales of the Brothers Grimm. The juicy darkness of the writing never goes away.

Have a lovely weekend!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Farter's Manifesto (reprinted)

by Antonios Maltezos

Some people are deeply offended by farts. I find them funny, side-splittingly hilarious, especially when they happen by accident—to someone else, that is. By accidental farting, I mean, of course, bending over to pick something up, when your mind is preoccupied, your body loose. You could be overly tired. Maybe, you’ve done a lot of lifting already, built up the pressure, and all you can think about is how tired your body feels. And then, pffft! You’ve let one go. I love being within earshot when that happens. I’m the type of bystander that just won’t ease up on the finger-pointing. “You farted,” I’ll scream out from a safe distance.

But not all farts are accidental. Right, boys? Us men are notorious for picking the place and time. We’re looking for a reaction even before we start aiming, smile, when we get it. The women folk will frown, moan about how horrible life is living with a farter. We expect it, and although it hurts our ears, we’ll still always go through with it. It’s what we do.

I propose we start a campaign to bring farting out in the open, turn it into something of universal appeal, something that will bring us together as one. Even the foreign fellow who railed against me for letting go of what I thought would be a silent one—even he farts. He told me about a man from his village who was exiled for forty years because he farted within earshot of the other villagers. I wanted to tell him that he was over-reacting, but was afraid our cultural differences would bring out the knives. “I’m sorry,” I said, “it was an accident.” Not true.


(reprinted from my deceased blog. It was either this, or write something about Sanjaya.)

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Buffalo Seekers

by Margot Miller

Who goes to Buffalo in a snow storm? Snow-birders returning from Florida, young people who have moved away coming home to visit family—perhaps for an emergency—, a few business people, and Canadian immigration visa-seekers. Some want temporary work permits, some want to join family members already in Canada, most want permanent residency. Most have been in the States as students or H1 workers, and they have gone through the four-to-six year wait for US immigration and given up. The Canadian process, like many other things there, works. Things happen when they say they will happen. There are no cost overruns and everyone is cheerful and happy to help—if the rules let them.

At eight o'clock in the morning there is a line of visa-seekers along the wall at the top of the escalator in the HSBC bank tower. The Immigration employee is pleasant and firm. She explains patiently and clearly over and over to every group of newcomers:

"Take out only your passport and the documents that you have been sent with the invitation to come to the Immigration Office. Make your phone calls now, you will not be allowed to make them upstairs. Either put your phones in your bags and plan to check the bags or plan to check the phone. Turn the phone off. Do you have your three photos? Place them inside the passport at the photo page. Open the paper and place it inside the passport." She finds a blank space on each of the supplicants, a shoulder, a coat, a scarf, and slaps on a sticker.

Sullah is Algerian. He drove all night from Philadelphia. He has his visa and his landing papers. He wants an extension because he cannot "land" by the date specified. Today is Thursday, he must land by Sunday at midnight. There are no extensions. He will have to land today, just across the Peace Bridge, and then go back to Philadelphia to get his things and move to Montreal, where his family awaits him. But he has not brought his American visa papers with him, apart from what is in his passport. He needs a travel document to permit him to re-enter the United States. He hopes to be granted an extension.

Xujun, a Chinese graphic artist is getting visas for herself and her husband, a sculptor. Ramesh, a computer programmer and web designer, is getting a visa only for himself. He waited six years for a green card in the United States only to have it denied. Robert, from Manhattan, is getting a visa because his wife is Canadian and has dual citizenship, as do their children. He flew in from Israel and has been granted an extension to finish his master’s degree there before settling in Canada with his wife and children in June.

The agent lets ten people at a time turn the corner and line up for the elevator. She tells the visa seekers to flash their sticker at the guard. Once inside the elevator she continues.

“When you get out of the elevator lineup single file just as you were downstairs. I will take your phones or your bags, and give you a claim check. You will sit in the row I tell you to sit in.”

Everyone does as instructed. If someone makes a mistake another visa seeker leans over and helps him to find the right place. Everyone here knows the turmoil in the stomach of every other person in the room. The agent stands again in front of the hopeful faces and tells them to move up one at a time as they are called to the windows. During the wait to pick up the passport with the visa affixed, available after one-thirty that afternoon, everyone will go downstairs to the international café or out into the snowy city.

Sullah is denied his extension. He retrieves his phone and takes the elevator down. He must now find the garage where he parked the car he rented to make this trip and head back to Philadelphia. Today is Thursday and he must return by Sunday. He is tired, but he heads out into the snow.

In the international café there are many dark skinned, thin, patient, and hopeful faces. There are Eastern Europeans, Indians, Pacific Islanders, South Americans, a Jamaican, two oriental couples. Some of them manage to eat. The two oriental men play chess.

About forty-five minutes before the office upstairs is due to reopen, the line starts to form again at the top of the escalator. The line thins by two-thirty and at four o’clock the last visa seekers have been escorted out of the building. Many have already made their way to the Peace Bridge, others to the airport or their cars to return to wherever they have been living, collect their belongings, and transport their lives into Canada.

Under our call for 'comments' during our "Love Month" at the CWC, several superb pieces were submitted from readers that deserved a greater prominence, this piece by Margot Miller, among them. Margot Miller divides her time between the Okanagan Valley (BC) and the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay (MD). Her creative work has appeared in (or will soon appear in) ChickFlicks, Long Story Short, Subtle Tea, BluePrint Review, Salomé, Moondance, Mosaic Mind, Fringe, The Angler, Steel City Review, Toasted Cheese and others. Miller's web page can be found at: .

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Winged Messengers

by Tricia Dower

The herons have returned to the magnificent Beacon Hill Park a mere two blocks from our city home.

On Saturday, Colin and I made a rainy pilgrimage to the heronry, navigating soggy daffodil-strewn fields and circling a lake animated with noisy ducks and geese. We crossed over Emily Carr’s little stone bridge toward a copse of Douglas firs and — ah, there was one…and another…and another — nesting in the tops of the tall firs. I had to bend my neck so far back to see them, rain splashed into my eyes. Their bulky nests swayed with the branches in the breeze like rock-a-bye cradles of sticks. A few other herons sat in regal silence on other trees a short distance away. Plumes hung below their long necks like beards.

The four-foot tall Great Blue Heron, with a wing span of six feet, is the largest heron in Canada. It weighs less than six pounds, however, and is fragile. On Vancouver Island, there are twenty-three known heronries with approximately 450 active nests. Beacon Hill Park has hosted the largest of these heronries for twenty years.

It’s extraordinary that the birds return each year. They are reportedly sensitive to air pollution and noise and the heronry is located next to busy Douglas Street. It’s even more extraordinary they returned this year: the Victoria Times Colonist reports that at least ten of their nests were lost in last winter's windstorms. For the first time ever, dogs are not allowed in the vicinity. People are urged to keep their distance, as well. But we’re not the only hazard. High winds can fell a fledgling, and root disease has killed a number of mature western red cedars and Lawson cypress trees in the area. While these aren’t the herons’ nesting trees, they provide shelter from bald eagles with an appetite for baby herons.

On Sunday I went back by myself. The sun was out and so were the worshippers with cameras on tripods and binoculars in hand. Parents shushed their children and pointed up to the trees. I didn’t see as many herons as Colin and I had the day before. They’re reputedly not big on crowds. But I enjoyed sharing in the awe of the others who had come to see these birds the ancients considered messengers from the gods. With all we’re doing to destroy our environment and that of so many other species, I could weep with gratitude that the herons have not given up on us yet.

Photos: Darren Stone, Victoria Times Colonist.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Spring's Lusty Promise

By Tamara Lee

In the absence of sun, there is always red wine.

As Winter staggers toward Spring—a half-drunk bottle of merlot in one hand, a wineglass in the other—Spring acts coy and says, “Gimme a minute. I’m not quite ready.” And Winter, that near-spent old man, wonders if he should pop some Viagra.

“Please don’t trouble yourself,” Spring says, fixing her hair and finishing off his glass, her lip-gloss on the rim the only tangible evidence that lighter days are ahead.

“Sorry. Thought that was my inside voice.”

“You have one of those?”

He grins. One thing about that Winter, he has a sense of humour.

“The clocks went forward early this year,” Winter laments, as he is known to do.

“Yes, it’s about time.” Spring likes her witty response, but Winter doesn’t hear her. Age will do that. And exhaustion. He’s been busy this year in Canada, mixing things up for them, confusing easterners with western-like weather and giving westerners a little what-for.

“Sorry, did you say something?”

Spring sighs, and looks at the label on the bottle.

“You really must get a sauvignon or something a little less robust; merlot is so mid-winter.”

“Don’t you dare start suggesting rosé or, God forbid, ice wine. Please. I couldn’t bear it.”

Spring likes this Winter guy, all grumbly and morose. He’s amusing for short fits and starts, but he does get to be a bit much.

“Okay, I’m ready.” Spring looks lovely. She rarely disappoints for her grand entrance. “I’m off to Vancouver first, see if I can’t do something to cheer those water-soaked folks up a bit.”

“Vancouver? Oh, I’ve been there. Nice folks. Don’t know the first thing about driving in snow, though.”

They both share a giggle at the expense of those determined to use all-season tires in the snow.

“Oh, Winter, you’re a hoot. Don’t be a stranger, eh?

“Who else is gonna keep the wine-cellar stocked? Summer? All she’s good for is a bit of sangria.”

But Spring has already skedaddled. And Winter is left with one swig left on the bottle.

He decides to save it; there’s still a chill in the air back east, where he’s headed for last call.


(photo by tilo.)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

This is Us

by Suzanne Aubin

This is us dancing to CBC Blue Note, you holding me so I don’t fall, us making a soufflé together, me strumming the guitar for you, us napping outside after cycling, you bringing me wine in the shower and leaving a note on my pillow.

This is us playing backgammon on the picnic blanket, you guiding me to the sunny spots on the Ferry and me bringing you Handel; it is us laying down under your weeping willow and you talking about your squirrels; you showing me the owl in the night and caressing me in the hot tub. It is us hitting the ball together and you taking out my Christmas tree, you bringing me baskets of greens and me wearing a red dress.

This is me wanting to go away to write; this is you, torn
by my absence.

This is me wanting every moment to be good; you, knowing that it will hurt. This is the brave new us starting again and making different mistakes than before.

This, I hope, is us locking fingers, accepting to come and go and always be there, knowing that some times are better alone and all the others spent together are but a gift from the universe that we chose to open at the same time.

During our recent Love Month, a few people contributed stories and reflections that were far too good to keep hidden in a Comments section. The piece above is one of them. A native of Québec City, Suzanne Aubin lived around the world before settling in British Columbia where she teaches languages, does translations and writes in her spare time. She has run a monthly column in a national aviation newspaper and published free-lance articles in Okanagan Life, a BC magazine. Her latest publications include BluePrint Review, Flash Flooding, Salomé Magazine, and Flash Flood Fiction.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Anniversary Month

On April 23 we celebrate the CWC’s first anniversary! We had a great year discussing writing and the lives of writers in Canada. Thanks for reading and commenting on more than 250 posts.

We're looking for ideas on how to celebrate. Stop by in April and tell us how you celebrate special dates, or better yet, enter our contest!

April Contest Rules

Email ( us your best anniversary story in time for our own anniversary April 23rd.

We’ll post the top three stories on the last day of April. The winner will receive an Amazon gift certificate! Word limit is 500, deadline is midnight Toronto time April 22, 2007.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Hockey Night in Outremont

By Anne Chudobiak

I don’t like hockey, but if I want to see my friends during the NHL season, I don’t have much choice: I have to watch it. They meet every Saturday for pizza and the game. This past week was special. Our hosts were the proud owners of a new couch. There was no way I could beg off. “It’s blue corduroy,” they told me.

I don’t know why I am invited to these things. Once there, I make it my goal to distract everyone from the television, usually with gossip. (“Nobody watches hockey on hockey night,” says my daughter. “They just stand in the kitchen and talk, talk, talk.”)

Last Saturday, as we were talk, talk, talking, my gaze drifted towards the TV, where I caught the stats for Johan Franzen, centre with the Detroit Red Wings. Only I misread “Johan.”

“Jonathan Franzen!” I said.

“Who’s that?” asked my host.

“The American novelist,” I prompted. “He wrote The Corrections.

“Oh,” he said, “that sounds vaguely familiar.”

For a second, I was shocked. How could you not know Franzen? He writes for the New Yorker.

And then I was relieved. You don’t know Franzen. You don’t care who writes for what. I decided then that I would attend hockey night more often. If they’ll still have me. I’ll even bring the beer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Oh Wise Ones

by Steve Gajadhar

I don’t know about the rest of you writerly types, but I can’t read my own work worth a damn. I’m lucky to spot its from it’s, or their from there, let alone the subtleties of characterization, the ins and outs of plot, or the nuances of tone. So I have friends (and a fabulous spouse) that read my work and comment on it for me. Some of them even enjoy doing it, which means I can’t be as bad as I think I am. And all of them (one in particular, RP) have been brutally honest with me, for which I thank them profusely.

My readers tell me when something stinks, when something shows potential, or when something is good and with some hard work could be great. They tell me when they are lost, or when too much of the story is in my head and not on paper. But they don’t tell me what I should do. They tell me what I’ve already done. This is an important difference, and one that signals you’ve found someone with the potential to become a trusted and wise reader of your work for years to come.

The following is excerpted from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Fantasy and Science Fiction:

The audience never lies. When I was a playwright, I learned something about audiences. After the performance, everybody lies and tells you it was wonderful. But during the performance of a play the audience will never lie. By the way they lean forward in their seats, eyes riveted on the stage, they tell you that they’re interested, tense, anxious--exactly what you want. Then, suddenly, a large number of them shift in their seats, glance down at their program--without meaning to, they’re telling you that something’s wrong with the play, you’ve lost their attention.

As a fiction writer, you can’t watch what they do while they’re reading your manuscript. But you can train one reader to notice his own process of reading and take notes that will help you find the weak spots in your story. You want him to keep a record of symptoms--what the story does to him.

He’s right, of course. I want reaction. I want emotion and thought provocation. And I do want some prescription, because that brilliant piece of exposition that I’m love with might actually do nothing for the story but add word count. I want a well trained reader!

Yet what should the reader look for? The reader-writer relationship is a dependent one. Each learns and grows from interacting with the other. Each relationship is different, with each reader of my work getting different things from it, finding different things wrong with it. It would be nice to have a universal starting point, a singularity from which this symbiotic relationship could spring, or at least a set of directions for our readers to fall back on when they’ve lost their way. I think Mr. Scott Card can help us out yet again. Here are his wise reader questions:

1. Were you ever bored? Did you find your mind wandering? Can you tell me where this happened? --Let him take his time, look back through the story, find a place where he remembers losing interest.

2. What did you think about the character named X? Did you like him? Hate him? Keep forgetting who he was?

3. Was there anything you didn’t understand? Is there any section you had to read twice? Any place you got confused?—The answers to these questions will tell you where exposition isn’t handled well, or where the action/scene is confusing.

4. Was there anything you didn’t believe? Any time when you said, “Oh come on!”—This will help you catch clichés or places where you need to go into more detail.

5. What do you think will happen next? What are you still wondering about?

From here you can come up with your own questions, customized to each of your readers. Your readers will still each give you their unique point of view and criticism, only now they can each answer some of the same questions and give you a litmus test of the overall quality of your piece.

Now, before I forget, a big shout out to all my dedicated readers. Thanks MK/RP, RM, JH, and SG. And a big thanks to and all of you zoers who have been transient readers of my stuff.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Basic Ingredients

by Jennifer McDougall

I’ve decided to learn to cook. I don’t expect to become a gourmet, or a person creating new exotic recipes, or even, a lover of cooking. I just want to be a common sense cook in my own home.

This has been one of the things on my To Do Someday list, the list comprised of those over-the-top adventures I dream about, great habits I hope to adopt, hobbies and experiences I haven’t had the resources to explore yet, whether they be time, money or courage. In the case of cooking, it’s been patience I’ve been lacking.

Of course I can cook, a bit. After all, I feed a family of six three times a day (at least). I can scramble eggs, mix up tuna salad and prepare any other grocery item that can become a meal in one step, like toast or bacon or sandwiches. I also know how to make lasagna and chili. I can even cook a roaster chicken. I clean it, put an onion in the cavity, sprinkle salt and pepper over top, and bake it for an hour. We eat that a lot around the McDougall household.

This is where the home cooking ends. I know the frozen food aisle well. And the cake mix section. Have you seen what they’ve done with dessert mixes? Forget the same old confetti angel food cake you grew up with, now there’s Carmel Lava Cake, Lemon Poppy Seed Streusel Coffee Cake, and Orange Dreamsicle Cake.

I panic when faced with a fridge full of basic ingredients that I have to somehow fit together to make a meal. It’s beginning to feel like such a cop out to grab for my fast food coupons or visit the grocer’s prepared food section (again). So far the kids aren’t complaining, but I wonder how long I can get away with serving Subway for dinner.

The result when I do tackle a new recipe is almost always disastrous because of my urge to be efficient with time, with dishes. I combine steps to cut down on dirtying another pot or mixing bowl or wooden spoon, I experiment with ingredient substitutes to avoid a last minute trip to the store.

When cooking from a recipe I need to study it over and over again to get it to stick in my brain. So often I forget the name or measurement of the ingredient by the time I cover the space between the cookbook on the counter and the pantry door. I have to retrace my steps, finger the place where I left off and reread.

I haven’t a pinch of common sense when it comes to putting spices with meats, or sauces with veggies. I’ve been told many times how to make basic buns, or gravy, or roasts but I can’t keep the processes straight. I don’t think the flour gets sprinkled directly into the pan, it should be mixed first. With water. Hot or cold? And roasts! All the cuts sound the same to me although I know there are huge quality differences, outside, inside, round flank…

It’s time I figured out what goes on in the minds of regular cooking parents across Canada. I really do not want to turn forty next year, and be a mother who is still afraid of basic ingredients.

One cookbook I received as a wedding shower gift that has been useful over the years is The Bride’s Choice Cook Book by Canadian, Emma Sanders. It boasts great advice and recipes for all the basics including chocolate pudding and chicken soup.

I needed a fresh start though so off I went to pick up a new cookbook. I chose Simple Suppers by Alberta’s own sensible chef Jean Pare.

For six days last week, I cooked from a recipe. I took my time, visited the grocer every single day, paid close attention to each step.

As a kid I spent no time in the kitchen, my sainted mother requiring us girls to do little more than pick our own wet towels off the bathroom floor, so this attention to detail was new to me. I’d never had any practice with recipes and I can see now, that practice is what it’s going to take.

I want to be the kind of cook who can read through the instructions once and retain most of it, to know from across the kitchen that the little recipe card probably wants a teaspoon of salt, not a tablespoon, to deduce whether the dish should be covered or uncovered in the oven without having to reread.

I want to be relaxed around basic ingredients.

I indulged a bit and bought a few metal skewers, a better cheese grater, and a new bottle of cumin, but I’ve been careful not to get ahead of myself, to spend a bunch of money on tools the cook I want to be should have. For now, I’m taking it one step at a time, keeping things as simple as possible. It’ll be some time before I can justify a fancy food processor . I did discover one free tool that has already saved me this week. The cook’s thesaurus helped me clear up a misunderstanding involving white wine vinegar and rice vinegar.

My plan is to move through Mrs. Pare’s recipes for a few weeks and then go back and make the good dishes again. Practice, practice, practice.

Hey, I’m making beef dishes this week. Got any common sense to share?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Perfect Generosity: The Art of Alice Munro

by Andrew Tibbetts

An on-line writers group I belong to is working our way through The Best American Short Stories of 2006, edited by Ann Patchett with series editor Katrina Kenison. We recently hit the ubiquitous Alice Munro story. There’s always a Munro in the Best American- this year’s model is “The View from Castle Rock.” Another on-line writers group I belong to takes up each week’s New Yorker story so I’ve already had an earful about this piece when it first came out in the New Yorker. For a nice Canadian lady she sure has stirred things up. Talk about love/hate: “too long-winded”, “too many characters,” “all tell and no show,” “I was swept away in the first few paragraphs,” “I couldn’t finish it,” “I didn’t want it to end,” “it’s a ‘bunch of character sketches with no story arc,” “it’s a mess,” “her prose is so precise, without stretching to the metaphorical she lets the words do their job to tell a story,” “too saga-y,”, “it uses present tense for a story that takes place 200 years ago!” “Like reading material in a history book,” “the best story the New Yorker has published in a long, long time,” “name, not readability, determines what the New Yorker publishes,” “love, love, love it”, “hated, hated, hated this story,” etc, etc, etc. Phew.

Alice Munro writes short stories and story sequences, nothing else. She may be the most lionized fiction writer of the form. The other ‘greats’- Chekov and Joyce, dabbled in stories but are more widely known for plays and novels. The quality of raves she gets is weird enough, but the roster of ravers is even stranger- Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, Alan Hollinghurst, Cynthia Ozick, John Gardner, David Leavitt, and on and on, strange bedfellows united in superlatives for our demure Canadian. But what exactly is it that she does? Take a look at a few of her most successful works. “Meneseteung” is a mystery disguised as a poetry review. “The Albanian Virgin” is a period adventure story (with pistols and disguises) wrapped in a chilly slice of bleak contemporary bad-marriage realism. “The Dance of the Happy Shades” is- what?- a rant about evolution, an existential wail, a scurrying away from the secret of happiness?- whatever it’s hidden heart, it is disguised as a children’s concert review. Everything looks simple but is constructed in a complex and sophisticated manner. Look at it and there’s almost nothing there. Look away and suddenly there’s a dark secret gnawing at you. Look back and it’s gone: a story about a rape without a rape in it, a tale of murder without the actual murder, sexual abuse that is never mentioned, violence without a sighted bruise, jealousy, envy, longing, despair and anger all safely tucked behind the Southern Ontario buffet and hutch. Would you like some tea? Some flat ginger-ale?

Her art is the art of concealment, repression- an aria about not singing, a bare stage about a crowded house, a story about what isn’t told. But her architecture, the structures she creates to perform these tricks of emotional transubstantiation, is complex and epic. I’d like to suggest that her single greatest contribution to the art of the short story is in the area of architecture, and “The View from Castle Rock” is one of her masterpieces.

We are on board a ship full of Scots immigrating to Canada in the 1800’s. Nothing much happens or a lot happens, depending on how you look at it. But this nothing/everything is told in overlapping waves. It is structured as a sequence of flash fiction pieces: the waves of mini-narrative wash over each other, some cresting, turning on themselves, shifting p.o.v. from one voyager to another, deftly, and some simply seeing some small thing, some plain moment, almost static. Characters pop up and disappear. Storylines crest foam and dissipate. A pig is hoist through the air, bangs into some of the passengers, and is never seen again. It’s a surrealism of perspective. It’s the perfect structure for a story set on the ocean. It’s the perfect structure for a story about the waves of immigration that swept over North America. It’s the perfect Munro architecture; it feels totally organic- this happened, and then this, look over here, remember that guy, oh that reminds me to tell you about what happened to that woman over there- and yet it is a stream-lined technological wonder designed to punch home a single and singular experience of humanity. It is a vision of the world, felt, not thought.

Tossed among the relentless waves of the story are all kinds of treasure- there is the wonder of the deformed sister, the secret language of the child prodigy, the joy of the doomed girl, the journal that hides everything with weather, the rawness of women’s birthing, the sweet and strange feeling of watching your husband dance with other women, the suddenness of an old man’s descent to bitterness and nostalgia, the vagaries of disease and death, the way a kind word can hurt, the things that topple class divisions and the things that can’t- so much. But not too much. Alice Munro is generous, but never sloppy.

The other architectural element alongside this formless collage is sequence of precisely calibrated mirrors- the way the ship-bound epic is bookended by extraneous scenes about viewing, the first with the father and son looking across the ocean and into their future, the last with Alice Munro herself looking at gravestones and into her ancestral past, the way a full-of-life-boy who dies is mirrored by a cheerful girl-who-will-not-live-for-long. The way a man’s two wives split the female role in his story and their two gravestones say differently “wife” and “mother”, the way Agnes’ labour of Inez is mirrored by the toothless woman’s easy time of it, how lifestock that is hoisted on board in Scotland and lifestock is rowed out to the ship from Canada., the way the two most important women in his life react so differently to young James’s magical language, the way the two important men in her life react so differently to the doomed girl’s joy and desire, the way the forests of Ettrick are mirrored in the forests of the new world, nothing in the story is without at least one reflected twin. Mirrors everywhere- making a chandelier of the waves, a glorious flickering of human interaction, a god’s eye.

The combination of this organic flow through this intricate reflective symmetry is a structural tour-de-force. There’s nothing like it in literature. The only comparison in art that I can think of is something like the middle period music of Elliot Carter, the Symphony of Three Orchestras, or the Double Concerto for Piano and Harpsichord- those massive structures of metrical precision containing those wild, chaotic random-seeming splashes of sound. However, Munro does Carter one better, she’s the Fred Astaire of literary complexity- she makes it read easy. Carter’s music sounds difficult, complex. Munro’s complexity reads as naturally as taking in the gossip while doing the dishes at a party.

And this brings us to the other glory of Munro: we now have the lives of girls and women on the page. Who’s given us them before? The precise observations of John Updike, or say, Carver or Cheever, or other contemporary short story masters, are the documentation of masculine existence. In “The View from Castle Rock” we are taken into the sensations of women’s loins, and of course women’s hearts, in the same way Updike takes us into the groins and souls of his American men. I don’t know what it is like to be sore from childbirth, but I’ve never come closer than while reading this story. This is why she is essential. For all her glories of style and structure, if she had nothing new to say, she’d be a charming doilies-maker.

And this brings me at last to the connection between her style and substance. Alice Munro tells us about the lived experience of the female, but she tells it in a way that grows out of woman’s traditional ways of telling. She isn’t a novelist. Her palette is small. And yet she is massive. Like the women who weren’t allowed to paint, who quilted. Or who weren’t allowed to make speeches so they made banquets. She finds a way to pour everything into her task. Her architecture of dichotomy- telling so much and hiding so much- is derived from traditional women’s power- the power of knowledge, of gossip, or putting on a show for the neighbours, of hiding the truth, or pretending to try to hide the truth while secretly giving away the whole picture- to whoever can read the code. Or whoever can see. Or whoever can listen.

Munro demands seeing and listening from the reader. She will not tell you what happens to the goat in “Runaway”, for example, but if you are with her, you will know. For all she tells you about the people on this boat, there is so much more she will not tell you. She’s the perfect gossip.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Box Chick

by Patricia Parkinson

(May contain swearing, not sure yet.)

On Monday, I'm starting a new job. I'm terrified.

I've been doing my job for twenty-two years. I was a child prodigy and this newness of location should be nothing for a pro such as myself. I had to breathe into a paper bag after writing that last bit. However, I am petrified with fear; was paralysed from the time I heard I got the job, until, well, it hasn't abated.

I'm in sales in the car industry. Big surprise there. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if I became what I told my teachers I wanted to become - a bio chemical lab technician on the verge of discovering the cure for all things that kill us. Instead, I sell paper. Lots of paper. Paper that tells you about warranties and leases and insurance that will pay for your loan in the event you are maimed or injured while exiting your tub and other pieces of paper that reduce the depreciation of your brand new car. How this piece of paper works is beyond me, but there's a 1-800 number provided for your convenience. I also sell undercoating. My husband tells me, "Undercoating will save the lives of your children." I've yet to use this line.

There's no official title for what I do. I've been called an F and I Manager, a Business Manager, a Lease and Finance Specialist, and a Banking Centre Manager. Dealers are creative when thinking of ways to name "The Person who takes your money" and label the position with what they think is a trustworthy title. We must trust who we give our money to.

The only consistent thing about my job is the room in which I conduct it. The room is universally known in the automotive industry as the box. Once in the box, the customer, the up, the moop, who the salesman tells me after negotiating for the past five hours, "Patricia, I forgot their name. So you do your thing, okay?" which is my cue to introduce myself first, extend my hand, and they, the up, the guy/family/student/woman who just left her husband and now needs a car to make her final escape will automatically tell me their name, relieving the salesmen of any embarassment. God.

Anyway, once in the box, you are past the point of no return. Before crossing the threshold I have downloaded your entire credit history, pulled a file on your driver's licence and the plate number of your trade-in and run a five hundred dollar deposit through on the credit card you don't even remember giving to the saleman who has now forgotten your name. There is no turning back.

It's all great and fine that everyone has agreed on price and color. It's my job to figure out how you're going to come up with the thirty-two thousand nine-hundred and ninety-five dollars plus tax to drive that baby over the curb or nobody gets paid. It's a motivating thing.

You either give the money to me or I give you the money.

In order for me to give it to you, there are certain credit criteria that must be met. Criteria. Well, let's just say I've heard more excuses for bad credit than Revenue Canada.

Lamest bad credit excuse (most commonly used by those under twenty-seven and usually involving a cell phone that "wasn't really" theirs): "I moved and like the cell phone company, they like... didn't know I moved, so, like... what was I supposed to do? They didn't send me those reminder things." If used by a client older than twenty-seven, the "moved excuse" denotes the use of illegal substances and increases the likelihood of Family Maintenance Enforcement collections for children that aren't theirs either.

And the tried and true, so freaking boring, excuse for bad credit: "It was my ex."

Ex anything. It could be an ex-dog. Really. A man we sold a car to went bankrupt over unpaid vet bills as neither he nor his ex-wife had official custody of the pet and both refused to pay. The man couldn't understand why the bank declined his request to borrow $65,000 for a new Suburban for his new dog and new wife and new children. Pay your fucking bills and shut up, I want to tell these people, in only the nicest of ways. I eventually got Mr. Happy Pants bought, and he drove off, a bit lighter in his load. Poor man never knew what hit him.

The best stories are the true ones. They're the reason I have been doing my job for twenty-two years, for the stories about people who are just down on their luck.

"If we could have this chance" to get a great job, or go to a school that isn't on a bus route, to take my children to school or the doctors, or "We're having our third baby," and they currently drive a 1982 Toyota Celica they share when they switch from graveyards to days because they can't afford day care and how they actually managed to conceive this child is a miracle of timing in itself. I tell the customers they can keep the Celica and become a two-car family for the same monthly budget as they originally came in for! And we are all delirious with happiness. We are! I am!

These are the best people, the ones I love my job for, the ones I like to think I do help out, that I bend over backwards for to get approved and make my job about more than transportation and all about moving forward. These are the good stories from customers who drop by to say hello when they get their first oil change, whose names I do remember and will never forget, who had a story, a story like everyone else, and only needed someone to listen.

On Monday, I start all over again at another dealership with more paper. After all these years, I'm just as nervous now as then, probably more so, there's more riding on it now than when I was single and twenty-four and and saw my first customers. I'm good at my job, at being a box chick. I like people. I'm genuinely interested in what they have to say, in their stories.

Wish me luck.

P.S. I'm bringing paper bags, the nice ones from Starbucks with the handles.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Trying to Butt Out - Part II

by Melissa Bell

It's been what now? Sixteen days cigarette-free? Yeah, I guess it has been that long already. Do I miss them? Sure do, but not as much as I thought I would, not like I've missed cigarettes in the past when I'd given them up (albeit temporarily). Previously it had been a real struggle. This time, not so much. I wish I could hone in on some secret that might make quitting The Habit a sure and simple thing for everyone, I really do. But so far this is what's working. For me. YMMV.

1. Avoiding alcohol.
2. Avoiding other smokers.
3. Thinking positive thoughts at all times.

We haven't been smoking in bars for a while now here in Toronto, so enjoying a cigarette with a drink in a "public house" isn't an option anyway. Still, it would only take me about half a martini with a smoking friend at my local before I'd be following him out onto the cold sidewalk to indulge myself when he decided he needed to break away for a dart. Also, up until a few days ago, it's been viciously cold here for March. Having to go outside in that dreadful weather to smoke takes all the enjoyment out of a cigarette. And it really does look rather foolish. One realizes how much of a physical addiction it is in those circumstances. And standing alone, tipsy and shivering in my garage ain't pretty and there's already enough ugly in this world. Even if no one else is around to see it. I know it's there, and it'sme. Goodbye to that nonsense.

Avoiding other smokers is tough, especially if you live with one or you regularly hang with a fellow nicotine addict. Luckily, in my workplace only a handful of people smoke (but it's amazing how there is a strange kind of bond among those who share the habit – smokers can always count on each other for an extra cigarette, a light, etc. - there is rarely any enmity among nico-addicted co-workers), and in my intimate circle of friends, I'm the only one who engaged in such a filthy act of self-destruction.

But just "thinking positively" about the situation has helped enormously. Stopping to smell the tulips every time I walk through reception. Buying an extra cup of coffee for the guy sitting on the sidewalk (the one who used to ask me for an cigarette even though my Extra Milds must have felt, to him, like a complete waste of time and tobacco). Seeking out positive images and messages and sticking them everywhere – my computer, my bathroom mirror – and during my commute, going on a bit of a "news diet" and choosing some classical music over the latest nihilist whine. This might seem like some kind of self-hypnosis and, I suppose, that's exactly what it is at its root. But whatever. When I decided to give it a try, it did feel a little useless and downright goofy at first, but then I started to get into it, started to see it as a game, and a bit of fun, rather than eyeroll-inducing drudgery. Dorky mind-game or not, almost effortlessly, I'm at Day 16 of a tobacco-free life.

And thank y’all for your support and encouragement. Have a wonderful weekend everybody. :-)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An Uncommon Love

by Susan Braley

Adrift after an urban hike, Eric and I wander into a new bistro. We settle at a table by the wall, each sliding a hand toward the other, a gesture as automatic as pulling our chairs in. Palm on palm, thumb over fingers. An unconscious coupling after all these years.

The restaurant spins with cockeyed energy: tables painted in slashes of turquoise, purple and yellow; paint spattered willy-nilly on the waiters’ smocks; old rock tunes bent into off-kilter harmonies. I lean in to the room to feel the current, like extending a hand out the window of a speeding car on a warm day.

Over Eric’s shoulder, I watch the lunch diners spill in. A gaggle of women draped in clever layers cinched in with wide leather belts, gleaming hair sweeping up from their seamless faces. Pairs of intense young men with single earrings and tired paperbacks. Nouveau personified.

Then I see them sitting at a table not far from us. The man in the wheel chair must be seventy-something, white bristle showing just below his black beret. But he inhabits his body lightly, like a dancer: his shoulders held back with ease, his narrow face serene yet alert. His hands are motionless on the arm rests of the wheelchair. His companion is a small woman, too old to be a daughter and too young to be his wife. She knows him well, though, inclining a little toward him when they speak, and relaxing, legs crossed, when they’re quiet. Their entrees arrive. She reaches for his fork and feeds him small bites of food, sets his fork down, picks up her own, and tastes from her own plate. Then begins again, the intimate rhythm between them unruffled, words and morsels interchangeable.

Our own meals arrive, baked beans whipped into white hummus with pork bellies on the side. We unclasp hands and start to eat, my mind counting the movements my hand makes to bring fork to plate to mouth. I take in the grey shadows at Eric’s temples. I remember to ask about his garden, remind myself to marvel again at the elegance of his hands.

As we finish, I look over at the other table once more. The woman has just paid the bill, and the two sit for a moment in comfortable silence. Then she reaches across the table, grasps his forearms, and lifts them, like one conductor enabling another. He stretches up, in that twinkling of strength, and tips his beret. The crowning gesture in an extraordinary pas de deux.

During our recent Love Month, a few people contributed stories and reflections that were far too good to keep hidden in a Comments section. The piece above is one of them. It was contributed by Susan Braley who lives in Victoria, BC. Her recent publications include the short story “The Garden of Wellness” in the Harpweaver, the prose poem “Immoderate Musings” in Madwoman in the Academy, and the poem “Country Bounty” in Canadian Woman Studies. She is working on her first novel. Before launching into writing full time, she was a professor of English literature and women’s studies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Message to Ottawa

by Tricia Dower

Good afternoon, Victoria!

Thus began the forty-first of forty-two stops in David Suzuki’s “If YOU were Prime Minister” Tour. About 800 of us (why weren’t there more?) filled a church in town to hear the esteemed biologist say we need a “reconnection” between the concerns of Canadians and what politicians say those concerns are. That everything we use comes from a biosphere that is fixed. That no place in the world is free of toxic air. That our times are providing “the moment that will define what kind of a species we are.”

The audience stood and clapped when Suzuki walked to the podium. We stood and clapped when he finished. There was spontaneous applause throughout his passionate presentation. Although I didn’t hear anyone yell, “Praise the Lord,” the air was full of revival meeting fervour. We loved hearing him tell us we’re on the brink of extinction. But only on the brink, brothers and sisters. This man of science had come to preach about salvation, about the slim chance of survival if we can muster the will to repent and change our rapacious ways. To put ecology above economics. To hold our government to Canada’s responsibility as a Kyoto Accord signatory. “Chretien signed Kyoto as PM, not as a Liberal,” Suzuki said, but Harper has “cast aside an internationally agreed upon treaty.”

Even if our government doesn’t act, we can make a difference as individuals, Suzuki says. He gives us a new set of Ten Commandments:

  1. Reduce home energy use by 10%
  2. Choose an energy-efficient home and appliances
  3. Don’t use pesticides
  4. Eat meat-free meals one day a week
  5. Buy locally grown and produced food
  6. Choose a fuel efficient vehicle
  7. Walk, bike, carpool or take transit
  8. Choose a home close to work or school
  9. Support alternative transportation
  10. Learn more and share with others

If we do all those things, he says, we can slow the rate of global warming and environmental degradation. It seems too easy to be enough — and it is, if only a few people do these things. We need a mass movement.

Suzuki’s website has a place for you to sign up and pledge to do at least three of the ten items on the list. He wants a million names so he can demonstrate to the government that Canadians want the environment at the top of the political agenda.

“If Rick Mercer could get one and a half million Canadians to sign up to change Stockwell Day’s name to Doris Day,” he said, “we can get a million for this.”

Will any of this make a difference? Is it already too late? It was inspiring to hear from someone who isn’t as sceptical as I. After decades of frustration over the destruction of our environment due to ignorance and greed, Dr. David Suzuki still speaks with hope and conviction about our ability to — finally! — use our brains and foresight to save ourselves. That’s worth a round of applause. Visit his site. Take the Nature Challenge and send a message to Ottawa.

Top: Photo of Earth rising over the Moon, taken July 16, 1969, from the Apollo 11 spacecraft; used per NASA guidelines. Inset: Dr. David Suzuki

Monday, March 12, 2007


By Tamara Lee

With so many in our gang here at the CWC going off to fab places like Tofino, Boston, and California, I’m visiting a foreign world called Burnaby.

Now I can fully claim city-gal status, not only by personality but also, as a non-driver, by necessity. This past week and a half, though, has challenged this city-gal’s patience. I’ve been house sitting in Burnaby, across from a cemetery, an hour transit-ride from downtown.

My Vancouver home is 10 minutes from anywhere I really need to be. Here, there isn’t even a corner store within a 20-minute walk. The only shopping option is over a half-hour walk/bus combo, and that’ll get me to the biggest mall west of Edmonton, a horrifying place called Metropolis/Metrotown Centre. Yes, a mall so large it has two names.

Thankfully, the homeowner thought to stock up for me; the last spate of rainy weather has not been very enticing. So this housebound lifestyle has me doing nutty things like picking branches up off the lawn, reorganizing the back porch, and using the elliptical trainer in bursts of manic energy.

Unfortunately, the energy hasn’t translated into much writing. Instead, I'm finding myself turning into a suburban couch potato. With a TV the size of a fridge, stocked with 60 channels—57 more than I’m used to—I now know what not to wear and how not to decorate, and I’m familiar with all those other shows I’m not missing in my life.

Yet there is always the dog walking, lots of dog walking. Shu-shu the Shih tzu and I have discovered, tucked in amongst the manicured lawns and mixture of split-levels and monster homes, between a cul-de-sac and the high school, the remains of a forest.

Walking through the tiny wooded lot—along trails trekked down by teens trying to find better privacy, littered with cigarette butts, empty bottles, and junk food wrappers—reminds me of a time when I thought I was adventurous. A time when smoking and drinking and sharing a joint between classes, flirting and rumour-starting were all the achievements and activities I aspired to or needed.

Returning to the house from the walks, I look out at the view of Forest Lawn Cemetery, which is not as horrible as one would think. There are no headstones, and if you look south-west across the well-tended lawns, towards the view of the Metropolis Mall skyline as the sun sets, the most startling eyesore is the ever-present yellow bulldozer across the street next to mounds of dirt: a constant reminder that only one thing is for certain.

But today I had a creative brainstorming meeting with my writing partner. As we sat around the dining room table eating Indian take-out from the city, I finally felt something stirring.

Sometimes a flatliner can be resuscitated.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Outbound to Alewife

By Anne Chudobiak

I am writing from Algiers Coffee House, Brattle Hall, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am at the table closest to the men’s room. This is my second pot of hibiscus tea.

I wanted to spend the afternoon at Café Pamplona on the corner of Bow and Arrow. (I use the word “corner” loosely. Like most Cambridge streets, Bow and Arrow meet at a confusing angle.) That’s where Erich Segal wrote the novel Love Story. I don’t see how anyone could write much more than a paragraph at Pamplona. The problem is the bathroom: there isn’t one, at least not for customers. This is always a challenge for me when I travel. I keep my eyes peeled for department stores and government buildings. They have the best facilities. (Yesterday I went to the ladies’ room in City Hall. After, I called home from the payphone in the basement. It was beside the Sex Offender Bulletin Board, which is a sort of visual primer on the known perverts of Cambridge.)

Here in Algiers everyone is writing or reading. The man in front of me is working on his CV. I can make out his screen from my table. Kyle P. C— expects to graduate Harvard in 2010. I’d feel guilty if I was anywhere else. This is a very bookish place. Instead of making eye contact, people steal glances at one another’s reading material. One guy jostles my table on his way to the men’s room. He can’t help it. He’s trying to read my notes.

I pour the last of my tea. I need to pee, but the ladies' is occupied. I don’t mind waiting. It could be worse. Think of poor Erich Segal in Café Pamplona. Love Story must have been written in very short spurts.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Chez Aphrodite

by Leanne Baugh-Peterson

You jumped into my revolving door. Your Greek warrior shoulders and Adonis face. A delicious moment of whooshing, twirling, swirling bliss. Then you escaped in a gust of wind.

If I were a colour I’d be beige, like oatmeal, or the colour of change-room walls.

There’s a sign on the cracked window:
Chez Aphrodite School of Sex Appeal – Awaken the Seductress Within

“Un, deux, trois… now follow me daw-ling.” Madame, a fifty-eight-year-old Barbie doll with a gypsy face, ran her hands seductively down her thighs. “You must swing your bottom. Like zis.”

I strutted and swayed and caressed my thighs but you walked past me on the street as if I were a crumbling stone statue.

“Promise me you will buy a sexy pair of high-heel sling backs. Have you not heard of toe cleavage, dawling?”

Days pass. I finally spot you leaving your glass tower. I wobble up to you in my new stilettos. So close I’m lost in the maze of your navy herringbone. I smell your cologne, like steaming chocolate with cinnamon. Your pheromones cling to me like a wet bathing suit. You turn and bump me. You say, “Sorry.” To me. You couldn’t identify me in a police line up. But you spoke… to me.

I move in front of you, stop you in your tracks. I nudge your Hawaiian sunset tie with my index finger while I drown in your surprised, deep-sea eyes.

“With your lips parted, give him a smouldering look that tells him he’s yours. Then walk away. After all, daw-ling, anticipation is the key that unlocks the door of desire.”

See you around.

During our recent Love Month, a few people contributed stories and reflections that were far too good to keep hidden in a Comments section. The piece above is one of them. Leanne Baugh-Peterson of Victoria, BC., has had a passion for screenwriting for several years. She was awarded a development deal in 2003 to co-write Tokyo Nights, a TV movie for CTV. In 2004, her script Chasing the Stars was optioned and is presently in development. In addition to screenwriting, Leanne occasionally dabbles in short fiction.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Top of the World, Ma

by Steve Gajadhar

This picture was taken at sunset from the catwalk of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), the telescope that brought us here to the Big Island of Hawaii, a place I’ve been lucky enough to call home for the last year and a half. The summit of Mauna Kea is 4200m above sea-level. Measured from its base on the ocean floor to its top, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. Add this fact to the Big Island’s isolated location in the Pacific and you have the best conditions for astronomy anywhere in the world. 12 other major telescopes share the summit with CFHT, and together they represent nearly a dozen countries.

CFHT employs around 60 people who directly: astronomers, observing assistants, etc.; or indirectly: admin staff, mechanics, etc., explore the universe. How frickin cool is that? These 60 people somehow keep this several hundred million dollar facility collecting photons from distant galaxies. I think of them as an adventurous Robinson family missing only the robot, B9, although they’ve got the parts and the ingenuity to make one.

I’ve always been fascinated by the universe and I’ve always found a profound piety in contemplating its infinity. The universe makes my anthropocentric, egotistical consciousness feel small and utterly insignificant. How can it not when I know that the phosphorescent band dissecting the summer night sky is the accretion disc of the Milky Way Galaxy viewed side on. That the Earth is somewhere on the inside ring, held in gravitational thrall by the supermassive black hole at the center of the spiral and hurtling through space at 300km/s. That our sun is only one star out of around 100 billion stars in our galaxy and our galaxy is only one amongst hundreds of millions of other Galaxies each containing billions of other stars. That some of these stars are orbited by planets. That all of this is only the visible universe, and that current estimates have around 85% of the universe made up of dark energy and dark matter of which we know very little about.

Standing on that catwalk reminded me how we humans are not special. We are not the grand centers we perceive ourselves to be, and yet we could be the only beings that have ever been capable of knowing our role in the universe. This knowledge should teach us something. As most of the world turns inward, I can’t help but think it would benefit every one of us to look upward for a moment and feel small.

“The universe is a pretty big place, it’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So, if it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.”
-Arroway’s remark at the end of the movie Contact

“To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”
-Stephen hawking

To be continued…

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Welcome Home To Canada

by Jennifer McDougall

Moms at the school my children attend cheered at news Melissa Hawach has returned to Canada safely with her two daughters. Since one of the girls had been a classmate of my own daughter last year, this seven month long saga has meant more to our family than just another story in the newspaper. Relieved to be home at last, Melissa held a press conference last Friday, her only avenue for communication with those outside her family and close friends, with observers and acquaintances like me who will probably never see her again as she endeavors to protect Hannah and Cedar from her estranged husband.

A week ago, the only news updates available were from Australia, where the whole mess began. It’s unlike me to read news feeds, or current event blogs, or chase details about personal stories, but this time I was keen to find out where this young mom was and whether she would ever make it back to Canada.

I found several articles by journalist Sandra Lee of the Herald Sun who had interviewed Melissa from “an undisclosed location.” More than seventy reader comments followed one of the articles. People that knew nothing of Melissa and her family beyond the cold sketches drawn by reporters and bloggers were predicting how the abduction came about, criticizing both parents. I was disgusted and wanted to rush to her defense to tell these ill informed readers that Melissa is a caring mother who carried her Tim Horton’s coffee in for kindergarten pickup just like the rest of us, that she didn’t ask to be plunged into the media spotlight, and that she is a hero and a strong role model for her children. This woman's brave action is one I could only hope to take if I were ever in a similar position.

Many readers took the self righteous stance that this woman is mistakenly being made out to be the victim when the only victims here are the two girls caught in a tug of war between two selfish parents. Further surfing uncovered many opinionated remarks reminding others to be fair, to give the benefit of the doubt, to consider there are two sides to every story.

Here’s a little of that other side:

“Tony Tebchrany, the lawyer acting on behalf of Joseph Hawach, told CBC News in February that he and his client were contemplating filing an international warrant for her arrest.

The lawyer said he was mystified about Melissa Hawach's decision to leave when she did. He said the two sides had been nearing a deal on shared custody that would have ended the dispute and seen all charges against the two dropped.” (CBC online report March 2, 2007)
Is this for real? How is it that a guy who avoided Canadian custody courts to drag his children into the middle of a war in Lebanon can criticize a woman for rescuing them? After all, it was he who abandoned custody negotiations in the first place.

His lawyer eagerly fuels the mother's critics:

Joseph Hawach and his lawyer were also shocked that Melissa Hawach would tell her story so publicly, Tebchrany said.

"We were surprised that a subject like this … would be sold to the newspapers," the lawyer said.

Joseph Hawach has received several offers to tell his story, his lawyer said, but he has refused. (from CBC article February 27, 2007)
Not surprising he won't talk, what could he possibly say? I didn't like the looks of the custody arrangement developing in Canada so I thought I'd try my hand in Lebanon.

For me there is a lot of unnecessary debate about a straightforward situation. The facts are simple:

A father took his daughters on vacation to Australia and decided not to bring them back. The mother tracked them down and brought her girls home.

This man broke the law and then hid from authorities. As sole custodian, the mother rescued her children from a country that does not have diplomatic ties with Canada making it impossible for the Canadian government to help her.

Even as the online reader comments annoyed me, I saw myself in their refusal to accept these plain facts. Often I belong to this same kind of news audience, certain that there is more to the story, believing that very few adults are innocently victimized, that we all have a responsibility for the place we find ourselves. It’s so easy to be fair, to try to balance the good and evil when the story isn’t personal.

Now I know I’m wrong. It doesn't always add up to there being two sides.

My compassion for this woman grows every time I think of her. Besides having to face an uncertain future in constant worry for the safety of her and her girls, she has also lost her privacy and is forever vulnerable to the judgment of complete strangers speculating on her motives, on her mistakes.

I winced during television coverage of Melissa’s news conference Friday, afraid that new details would only lead to more criticism. A reporter asked her to comment on Angelina Jolie’s interest in the movie rights to her story. Wisely, Melissa responded with something along these lines: “…my family knows better than to ask me anything about books and movies…I finally agreed to hire an agent to handle those requests…I really just want to be a mom to my girls…”

Another station didn’t bother to quote Melissa directly, likely leading the audience to question her priorities. They simply said that Melissa had hired a movie agent and that she found the Hollywood interest “flattering”.

Melissa will need to brace herself for another round of attacks. God help her.

photo taken from the Sun Herald online article last week

Monday, March 05, 2007

Our Collective Heart Goes Out to You, Our Talented Readers

We had a fun time with our theme month of February (except for the frustration, fights and crushing disappointments- it was 'love', after all.) Our blog had lots of traffic and lots of great comments. As we said, we'd pick our favourite and award a prize. It would be best to say like the dodo in Alice, "All have won, and all must have prizes", but that would take a government grant, and the paperwork for that is murder!

It's a tie: Commentor of the Month goes to Sharon Hurlbut and Ron Stanley.
Ron's 14-word microfiction for the 14th of February is:

I scrape ice off your car.
Later, you'll repay me,
warming up the bed.

Sharon's is...

Fourteen Words of Love

Are better spent
on grocery lists.
Love is a silent tongue,
prolific, urgent, shared.

So, we proudly beg our winners to send their snailmail addresses to (That's 'dot c a' not 'dot com' my non-Canadian friends.) We'd like to send you a slice of the Canlit cannon! (That's a good book by a Canadian, my non-cake-metaphor-getting friends.)

Honourable mention much go to Dennis Mahagin, for his 14-worder, and Ben Henry Swadley, for his heartbreaking tale (with a happy ending) posted as a comment under Anne's piece "Can You Hear the Drums, Fernando?" Thanks guys.

Keep the love flowin'!

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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Passport Canada

by Patricia Parkinson

In April my family and I are going to Disneyland. We’ve been saving for two years. Our, “Disney Account” is sacred, a balance on our Internet banking site that we notice the slightest fluctuation in.

Due to the new requirements that all visitors traveling to the United States by air must have a passport, we have no other choice but to bite the bullet and comply. I hate complying. However, I’ve been hugely procrastinating and now fear, after reading reports on the Passport Canada web site about the massive delays, that I am cutting it too close.

I ventured out on a beautiful Tuesday winter morning. A sunny day after a snowfall at high altitudes, the mountains were dusted, white, blue against a birds egg sky. I wore my tweed, faux fur collar long coat that I love, and curled my hair in what I think is a very Charlie’s Angels do, and saved my treat, my venti toffee nut latte, to stand in line with my fellow Canadians on a beautiful B.C., verging on spring, winter afternoon.

I’d never been to the passport agency before and vaguely knew the address. Thinking there must be a sign, maybe a green one with a “H” for hospital except “P” for Passport. I drove through an area in Surrey called as Whalley, a community known for the highest rate of car thefts per capita in the country (My feeling is if they changed the name of the community, it would evolve, however, I am not on council) and drove past the Scotia Tower. I was shocked by a line up of what I thought, were anxious customers getting in on their last chance to make an RRSP contribution.

Driving up a few blocks, I realized I’d gone too far. I pulled a Uee and turned around, started to make it back and stopped to let a man cross the street. As he approached I rolled down my window and asked the fateful question. It came out in slow motion.

“Doooo yoooou knowww whhhhere Paaaasssspooooort Caaaanaaada is?”

The man slowly raised his arm, turned his body, and pointed to the tower.

People were lined up out the door, around the trail that leads to the street, around the corner and down the sidewalk. After circling the block a few times, I miraculously parallel parked, applied lipstick, and joined the crowd.

A woman in front of me said the line continued on inside, “up an escalator.” I was the last in line for too long a time, feeling like the last person in on the joke, until an Asian couple, very cute, appeared behind me.

We all started chatting about the weather, the horror story everyone had about a friend who had been to the Passport office before. We talked about “the system,” and caffeine withdrawal and the rumors of people paying the homeless to wait in line. We clutched briefcases and file folders, bags of documents painstakingly filled out to ensure accuracy, not letting them out of our sight.

A man walking past overheard our conversation and joined in.

“I’ve been here since six this morning,” he said.

The line up fell silent. Even the shy and non-English speaking of us leaned in to hear his story, as it was now eleven-thirty, meaning, well, he’d been there for over five hours.

After waiting for three hours, standing outside in the freezing, semi darkness with other people hoping to beat the rush, early bird man made it to the wicket only to be told he needed proof of departure, something neither he, nor the rest of us were aware of. Something I didn’t bring.

Another man walked to our group, and in broken English, asked the same question I did. “I am Nirmal,” he said, slightly bowing. We nodded and smiled. “Where is Passport Canada, please?” he asked.

He had no forms that we could see, no files, nothing.

I inquired about his documentation, I’m a nosy woman, shoot me, and Nirmal produced his two required pictures. Some of us exchanged looks that said, “Poor man has no clue.” And we gathered together around him, huddled in for warmth, a bunch of Canadians offering our advice. We explained that Nirmal had to get an application.

He showed us his pictures. Two pictures of an unsmiling Nirmal, chin held high, with bright eyes and straight back shoulders. Nirmal stood at attention for his passport photos.

I took the pictures and turned them over. No one had endorsed the back.

“You have to get these signed,” I told him.

He shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.

All of us spoke at once. “A lawyer, or a notary. A judge maybe?” offering options. “It has to be someone that’s known you for two years,” we said.

Nirmal shook his head. “I know no one.”

“Your Doctor?” Early Bird Man suggested.

Nirmal shook his head. Options continued. Nirmal shook his head, not understanding.

“Your Pastor,” I said, touching him.

“Yes,” Nirmal said, and smiled. “I have this. At my temple.”

Nirmal and Mike – aka Early Bird Man - we exchanged names, some, even phone numbers, Mike took Nirmal inside and got an application. We helped Nirmal fill in the forms and talked about where we were from and where we were going. Nirmal left to see his Pastor, bowing as he walked backwards from our circle. I had to leave and come back another day with our airline tickets and meet more new friends.

We are from Pakistan and the Philippines, from England and Fiji or Korea and Maple Creek, Saskatchewan. We are Asian students going backpacking through The Grand Canyon or seniors going to Vegas. We are mothers and fathers and families going to Disneyland. We are Canadians.

P.S. Went back two days later at about nine in the morning, wearing full ski gear regalia, face mask included. I waited for six hours. We'll get our passports in time.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Trying to Butt Out

by Melissa Bell

Wow, a wee bit of serendipity this morning. Just took a look at Mr. Maltezos's post from yesterday (hi, Tony!) and caught his link to a story of his called "Smoke". How nicely strange.

Because, friends, yesterday I began the month of March as a non-smoker. Yes, I know I was supposed to get this all over and done with last December after the NaNo thing, but it just didn't take. If anything, I smoked twice my normal amount that month what with the parties and the cocktails and carrying on. But today? I'm already on Day Two smoke-free. And I'm feeling pretty confident I can do this.

Yesterday wasn't too bad at all for Day One. A couple of occasions, the physical craving kicked in hard and I had to steel myself to not go bum a smoke from a co-worker (gee, how classy - "bum a smoke" - good gravy!); but it quickly passed and I soon forgot about it. Imagine! And while I normally love smoking and driving (I have a nice 3-cigarette commute), the roads were so bad last night on the way home due to the weather, I didn't even think about smoking as I just concentrated on driving as safely as possible.

Speaking of driving, the "Driven to Quit" challenge has helped. I registered Wednesday. If I keep this non-smoking thing up, chances are I could win a car. Chances are I could also not win a car, but by the end of the month I'll have won something else. My freedom. And about $100 that I didn't spend on cigarettes.

So goodbye, dear Matinee Extra Mild King Size. We've had some good times, the two of us. You've been there for me through times of stress, times of some great conversations over cocktails, and we wrote some good halfway decent stuff together. But it's time to let you go. Thanks for everything. Please don't be bitter and leave me with a huge tumour on my lung already. If I'm still around when I'm eighty, I'll give you a call. We'll hook up again then. What the hell.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The Truth about Happy People

By Antonios Maltezos

Being miserable is like having a headache. You can’t remember not ever having a headache while you’re having a headache. Being miserable is dangerous… for you, and for whoever may be within your reach. It’s a bad, bad, thing: being miserable (your misery). It hangs over your head like a bad case of the head lice.

Being happy is like having your over easy eggs, over easy. It’s the first two beers. It’s a title fight. It’s your team on a winning streak. It’s a clean car, a haircut, a loving smile when you’re trying to be funny. It’s the tulip shoots, or the first bugs rising from the dirty pool water after a long, cold winter, frozen into the folds of the liner.

Being miserable… you’re likely to jerk that steering wheel, coming within an inch of hurting someone. It doesn’t matter that you’re just two blocks from home. You never can tell when it’ll grip you; though you should know from the morning, the instant you open your eyes, if it’ll be a miserable day, or happy one. Blame the pillow if it’s the former, put some jelly on your toast, skip the paper -- climb back into bed, if you must. Fight it!

Because being happy means never having to say you’re sorry. It’s what the month of love was all about. There were days you hurried out of bed, poured your partner’s coffee first, a smile on your face as you waited patiently for a sign, a thumbs up. You kept yourself from crossing the line, most days. And if you did falter, crawling out of bed the next day was like shedding your skin, because being a miserable person is a bad, bad, thing, as bad as being happy is good, and productive, and affirming, and confidence building. Make every effort to have this unpredictable month of March be your happy month. The lovelies, April and May, will take care of themselves… and you!

Have a good one!.