The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why, Antonios, why you do this to me?

By Antonios Maltezos

There’s been a lot of talk around here lately about starving artists and their tortured souls. Though none of us here at the CWC are starving I don’t think, we all, to some degree, have suffered for this writing thing -- because of this writing thing.

Why do it? What do you hope to achieve? You can hardly separate the two questions. They’re just begging to be spliced. Why do it, what do you hope to achieve? Not bad, but not good enough, either. Whydoitwhatdoyouhopetoachieve? Better, much better.

When I was a kid, I often wondered what propelled Superman into the air. Was it the force of his will? It couldn’t have been that he was lighter than air else he would have floated around like a helium-filled balloon. This guy could direct his flight. This guy could shoot right through the stratosphere and into outer space. It must have been the force of his will. I can remember moments in my life where I had myself convinced I could do the same thing. It didn’t matter that I could never actually get off the ground, because someday I would, for sure.

It was around the same time I started thinking about the end of things I’d grown accustomed to, my life, especially. Not in a suicidal way, never, but in a cowardly way, as if I’d already been so enamoured of the simple, childish life I’d led to that point, orange popsicles, rock fights, Farah Faucett’s nipples, and I just didn’t want it to ever end. I hadn’t yet learned to fly. Damn it! There were planets in other galaxies that functioned much better than ours, where stuff didn’t have to end, where they didn’t have wars, or diseases, athlete’s foot, head aches, and father’s who smoked four packs a day. The lambs were the bullies reincarnated from this planet, most likely, because fairness and justice and truth was all there was. On these far away planets, boys like me kept their posters of Farah under the mattress because she was always coming alive. In my youth, this was the future I was looking forward to, one big daydream. Hey, I never said I was the smartest kid.

Over the years, and with each move, I’ve managed to whittle down “my paper stack” to where I can almost carry the whole pile in one briefcase. Old stories I wouldn’t even attempt to rewrite today, school essays I was proud of and wanted keep so I could show my children how smart I was at their age. Stuff like that. A lot of it was versions of stories that had become something else, but were still filled with insight, I thought. I used a Smith Corona typewriter the first few years I wrote, so there was always a stack of paper on the floor by the desk. Heck, I’ve killed so many trees and I’m still so far from being the writer I want to be. I still haven’t learned to fly.

Why do it, then? Why go on torturing myself this way? (Hold on while I sip my tea.) … so why, why, why? And why haven’t I lopped off my ear yet? We used to get The Brittanica Book of the Year when I was a kid. One of them, I don’t remember which year, had a picture in it of a protester about to chop off his pinky finger. He was going to send the finger to his governmental leader as a sign of how far he was willing to go for his cause. Sorry, I don’t remember the specifics, but I can still see the picture in my head, and I know why I kept going back to it. I couldn’t imagine giving up one of my fingers. It baffled me. Being a writer doesn’t strike me as an occupation/pastime that should require such sacrifice. I ain’t gonna do it. I’m dogged about the writing thing. I’m forty-three and I’m still dreaming up situations I can write about, but make no mistake, I’ll put it away if I have to and allow my life to unfold as it will. I’m no psychologist, but I think writing was something I stumbled upon, really, as I got older and realized what life was all about. It facilitated my growing up, I think. Either that, or I never really grew up at all.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mourning the Lost Luxury of Benign Neglect

by Melissa Bell

I have always considered myself one of the lucky ones. I spent my childhood in a smallish town, ignorant of sex offenders and school knifings and...well, what are some of the other things that make young life a dangerous place these days? Lead paint from Chinese toy manufacturers? Sharp-edges on playground equpment?

I walked to school by myself, usually meeting up with other kids along the way. At the end of my day, I'd go home and ride my bike around the neighbourhood and get back in time for dinner. If it was the summertime, I'd often go off for a walk after dinner or take a book or a Richie Rich and climb a tree and read. We had a ravine near the back of our house - a perfect place for exploring and finding bugs and seed pods and cool rocks. On occasion I would fall and scrape something and need to go home for a Band-aid, and my mom or dad was there to give me one and then send me on my way. If it was a rainy day, I could hole up in my room with some construction paper, some scissors (real ones) and glue (real glue). Or my Barbies. Or some sewing or kntting. Egads. I sewed and knitted. Around lunchtime, I would emerge for a baloney sandwich and some cartoons, and then go back to my project.

There are little kids who live on my street here in Toronto. It's a street that is a dead end. No traffic other than the the slow drive in or out from the residents. But the kids are never outside without their parents at their side. I never see a group of young children crossing the street to go to the convenience store to load up on sugar - in fact one would never see a young child walking anywhere by themselves. It would be enough of a rare sight as to create alarm in the viewer. Why is that child walking unaccompanied?

What has happened between then and now? Are there more "bad things" likely to happen to a young person in today's world than the one in which I grew up? Sure, tragedies did occur and kids did get into trouble "back in my day", but that was just life. Now it appears as if everyone is always expecting the worst to occur at all times, and it's a national catastrophe when it does.

I meet the kids of my friends. Their days are scheduled to the teeth - huge days. School. Then usually soccer or swimming or gymnastics. Something that involves some huge energy. Then homework. I never had homework until middle school. Not ever. I don't know why we didn't, but we just didn't. Everything we needed to do we did in class. I can only assume, given what I read in the news, that a lot of class time must be used for other issue-based matters these days. Like grief counseling. Gun control. HPV vaccination discussions. Cell phone calls.

It must be so hard being a parent these days. It's not even 10 a.m. yet as I write this, and the television is saturated with material that is certainly not kid-friendly. If I'd run into something like The Maury Povich Show at the age of 8, I would have been one of those kids that sees something so shocking they stop talking for about ten years. Jeez, the old black & white Frankenstein movies sent me over the edge (although I loved them, of course), but to see the things - the real things - that show up indiscriminately all over the TV at all times - lipsuction procedures and morbidly obese toddlers - I'd be a neurotic, quivering mess. That was one of the disadvantages of the freedom I had during my own formative years - I developed a profoundly overactive imagination. My parents needn't have worried about "bad things" happening in my world - I worried enough about them myself. But I worried about things that were unlikely - decapitations and vampires and my dolls coming to life to take revenge if treated them unfairly. A brochure at the dentist's office convinced me I had childhood leukemia.

So while I'm thankful that my childhood world was one created mostly by my own spontaneity - the only scheduled activity I can recall was a weekly piano lesson - and even that occurred during the lunch hour during the school week - I grew up to encounter a world that comprises all the things I feared were out there, and much worse, anyway.

Knitting helps. And lots of garlic bagel bites. For the vampires.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Starving Artist as Capitalistic Archetype

by Tricia Dower

Colin was telling a friend about a talented young man he’d met who composes non-traditional classical music. “So, he’s chosen a life of poverty,” the friend remarked and I thought about how easily we accept the inevitability of that choice. Our values have been so co-opted by a bottom-line culture that we truly believe in the necessity of starving artists. They’re doing what they love, the reasoning goes, and that’s enough of a reward.

Four of the short-listed nominees for Britain’s ₤50,000 Man Booker prize have recorded pitiful sales of their books. (They could use that prize money.) Nigel Reynolds reported in an article in the September 9th Telegraph: “Indian author Indra Sinha [Animal’s People], had sold just 231 copies in the UK by mid-August, 10 days after its sales were supposedly given a major boost by being long-listed. Nicola Barker's Darkmans had sold only 499 copies. Anne Enright's The Gathering had fared a little better with sales of 834 sales, Mister Pip [by Lloyd Jones] had sales of 880 and … Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist broke the four-figure barrier, with 1,519 readers buying it.” Only one nominee, Ian McEwan, is having commercial success with his book, On Chesil Beach; it has sold over 100,000 copies. We can’t count on the marketplace to feed our literary greats.

On Tuesday night I attended a reading by faculty members of UVic’s Department of Writing and an impressive faculty it is. Reading from their own works were Lorna Crozier (Chair); Maureen Bradley (Drama, Screenwriting); Bill Gaston (Fiction, Drama, Screenwriting); Rosa Harris-Adler (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction); Lorna Jackson (Fiction); David Leach (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction); Tim Lilburn (Poetry); Joan MacLeod (Drama); and Lynne Van Luven (Journalism, Creative Non-Fiction). They joked about the wealth they were not accumulating through their writing, but they are lucky, nonetheless, to be teaching their art. Crozier opened the evening with an acknowledgment that many new students in the audience were there only because they had vaulted over their parents’ objections to their career choice.

Most parents want their kids to be financially self-sufficient, to be able to afford a home some day, have a few kids of their own. I wanted to be a social worker but my father said I was too soft; I’d give away all my money and end up broke, or murdered, or both. My first husband (I should be waving a martini around as I say that) wanted to be a phys-ed teacher but his father insisted he go into “business” because there wasn’t enough money in teaching. Our culture values money over calling, unless that calling is useful for making money — the more the better.

That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, so the best we can do is lend support to the starving artists around us. I’m intrigued by the concept of a Guaranteed Livable Income which would replace means-tested social benefits. It has some political support in a number of countries, including Canada and the United States, but that support is still small and ineffective. If GLI were implemented, those who are called to paint or sculpt or compose or write would not be committing to a life of poverty as a result or taking a job they hated to feed their artistic "habit."

Image of The Poor Poet by Carl Spitzweg, 1835, courtesy of The Web Gallery of Art. From the Gallery site: "Three versions of the Poor Poet are known. It is thought that Etenhuber (1720-82), a poet living in impoverished circumstances in Munich, was the model. Spitzweg shows the poet writing in bed to keep warm, for there is snow outside and he has no wood to heat the stove. But he seems unconcerned at his scant means and the leaking roof; with pen in mouth, he counts off the meter of his rhyme on his fingers."

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

I Look Mahvelous!

by Andrew Tibbetts

I must be moving up in the literary world. I’ve had several requests recently for ‘a photo to go along with (my) bio’. This puts me squarely on the second rung of the million-rung ladder of literary success. (From here I can just make out the hairy ankles of Pasha Malla hovering miles above me!) I don’t have any photos though.

I tried to take my own picture with my camera-phone in my bathroom mirror. Awful. I look jaundiced and you can see that I don’t clean very often. I look like I'm ‘behind bars’ from the streaking.

Yup, I’m going to have to knuckle down and have it done professionally. And here’s why: touch-ups. The reasons models look like models is that a team of air-brushers smoothes everything out. My homemade shots look like a dermatologist’s before pictures. I don’t expect to look striking, just not ill. With scurvy. Or tropical skin disease. “Yes, prisoner number 1156 has both jaundice and bwallabwalla disease. Sad. But on the plus side he can hide his shank in some of those pores.”

For an essay upcoming in the New Quarterly (keep on the look-out for the Real Estate Issue) on my move from Kitchener to Toronto, the good people at TNQ came to my rescue and sent a lovely young photographer to snap my picture in a steamroom -- avec towel, so stop worrying! I asked the editor if I could have the ones they didn’t use (you know how photographers take a whole bunch of shots and then pick the best one - ‘look like a cat, now like a hamster, now like a cat that just ate a hamster, throw your head back, your arm back, your back back, now like a hamster with his head thrown back that just ate a cat with his arm thrown back, okay now try ‘attractive.' ) Of course she had to point out to novice me that they didn’t buy the whole bunch, just the one they used. WHAT! The New Quarterly didn’t want a hundred shots of me in a towel?

So I'll have to buy my own professional looking head shot. It feels weird to hire someone to take your picture. If it's kids, well that makes sense - let's all head down to Sears in our best polyester like it's 1977! But your own photo shoot- that feels narcissistic. In the meantime, I am photoshopping my head out of any group shot where I don't look monstrous, pasting it to my bio and hoping people will blame their own eyesight for the blurriness.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why I Love Montreal

Yesterday I went to the tofu store to buy some tofu, only to find that they were plumb out. They had vats full of freshly made ginger tofu and black bean tofu, but no more regular, which I wanted for my miso soup.

“Sorry,” the Korean cashier told me, “the Cirque du Soleil took it all. They eat a lot of tofu, you understand.”

“About the ginger tofu,” I asked. “Will children eat it?”

“It depends on their age,” said the cashier, which I took as a ‘no.’ It seemed that my soup would have to wait for another day.

Hence the old adage: You can’t always beat the circus to the tofu store (or, in the original French: C’est la vie, c’est tout.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

From the Pit

By Tamara Lee

Last night, sitting out in my friend’s backyard, I watched the flames from the fire pit leap into the early fall air. While we discussed our respective creative arts—she’s a painter—I heard her insist with a hint of frustration, “I’m not really creating anymore, but I am painting a little still.”

Her money-making career involves helping others achieve their creative goals. Meanwhile her creativity, for various reasons, remains compromised. This disconnect, art versus life, pitted against one another like the fiery battle for Granada, is an age-old one for artists.

I recalled José Orozco, who to his inner depths recognized his own talents, barely restrained by his crippled hands, exploring the agony and dispossession of humanity. And yet his whole career he struggled for one thing: Recognition. Even when he attained it—from the Delphic Circle, to influencing some of the Americas best modern artists, to having his then-controversial visions defended by Institutions—he was not satisfied. He fell in love with a woman, his unrequited love for the tiny, fickle ballet dancer igniting his final angst. Many critics insist this is what kept him from his final peace. But perhaps it was simply his dependency on creating this inner turmoil in order to continue painting the ceaseless tensions of humanity, each relying on the other. It seems that those ceaseless tensions between heaven and hell were his deepest motivation. He might never have found peace. It was not in him.

Of course, the tortured artist thing isn’t just age-old, it’s old; struggling to find the balance between work and creativity—the balance—the endlessly tippering of scales. There isn’t balance, there cannot be. Life isn’t static, if it were, why would artists bother?

When we find ourselves "not really creating anymore," though perhaps still producing "a little," are we being hard on ourselves, or honest? Sometimes, this weekly blog post is the only thing I squeeze out. At least, onto paper. What goes on in my head, the stories and melodramas frittering in there, might pass as creating, if only I would get them down on paper. Some argue that if it ain’t down on paper, if it ain’t published, it doesn’t count. Journalling is ‘scribbling;’ blogging is ‘procrastination;’ daydreaming is daydreaming.

And then, once publishing, a writer’s few publications are often as good as invisible until some kind of quota has been fulfilled and official Recognition finally ignites the publications’ worthiness or the writer’s status as a Writer, self-identification as a writer be damned.

About Orozco, Jacquelynn Baas summarizes: "A key to understanding [his] work is an awareness of the relation between the artist's passionate idealism and his pessimism." And so the on-going struggle for artists to maintain idealism and faith, especially in times of limited output, against the assails of naysayers and well-meaning pessimists. In Orozco's words, "Painting assails the mind. It persuades the heart."

Making me wonder how writers pursuade their own hearts.

(Image credit: Manos, by José Clemente Orozco, 1926, lithograph; collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

My Own Private India (Not Really)

by Melissa Bell

I’ve been asked to “oversee” dinner this coming Wednesday at Bob’s place. Friends are visiting from Vancouver (a surprise birthday party for one of them on Saturday), and Bob suggested I do Indian cuisine. Seems he’s bought some of the newly-introduced naan from his local Loblaws and decided we should build an entire dinner party menu around it. Okay. I’m cool with that. I adore Indian food. But aside from the one time I attempted a shrimp recipe with its origins in Goa that left my friends clawing the tablecloth toward the water pitcher or racing for an ice-cold beer, I’ve never really ventured into the “Indian kitchen” on my own. Oh wait. I did serve a lamb curry to an old boyfriend once. He was violently ill the following day and the day after that. I don’t think it was my doing because I’d eaten the same thing and was perfectly fine. Still. Me and Indian food. I’ve got a bit of a sketchy past. And I didn't even mention the soup-based tribute to the Ganges that Bob and I pulled together for an Indian buffet many years ago. Oh wait, I just did. Anyway, let's move on, shall we?

This past week, as I pored over my collection of cookbooks and magazines, I had no trouble imagining the lovely things I wanted to make. But almost every intriguing recipe involved an ingredient that I had never heard of or seen even in my own very ethnically-diverse and super-stocked neighbourhood Superstore. Like asafoetida. Or black sesame seeds. Besan. And gram flour. Dried curry leaves. Some of the recipes suggested substitutions, but sometimes those suggested substitutes seemed ridiculous. To go to the trouble of attempting to create food that I dearly love, I want to be authentic! Do I dare use Sealtest cottage cheese in place of paneer as one recipe urged? Could I make my own paneer? Do I really need to hunt down chickpea flour so that my effort at kanda bhajia doesn’t wind up tasting like onion rings from Harvey’s? While I do have some time on my hands these days, I was hoping to not have to deal with the parking issues and anxiety involved with visiting my city’s beloved Kensington Market in order to procure all the necessary “stuff”. But I certainly didn’t want to be stuck with serving dinner guests a meal where all the components taste like they’ve been created from the same bag of Cheetos-coloured curry powder and jar of jammy-tasting chutney.

So imagine my bliss upon discovering a huge Asian market almost right in my own backyard. Amazing. Talk about the Law of Attraction at work. I’d be happy to share the name of the place with all of you, except the front signage is in Chinese and I don’t speak Chinese (yet). The only info available outside in English tells you that they have fresh fish and they sell pho and they repair watches. This is why I missed going in there for the year it’s been open. I thought they just sold fish and pho. And my watch works fine, thanks.

Enlightenment is a wonderful thing. Now I have a beautiful place so deliciously handy that regularly carries fresh kaffir lime leaves, winter melon, durian (!) and countless variations on the joys of salty tamarind candy. A foodie supermarket paradise! And the prices? Unbelievably fantastic. I could have spent all day there. I cannot wait to return on Tuesday to shop for all the party ingredients, secure in the knowledge that what’s needed will be available, and that I won’t be breaking the bank gathering all the required elements.

Indeed, the aisle of Indian products alone is enormous. Everything I’ve been encountering in all the recipes I want to try is all right there. Whee! We can have the kanda bhajia after all! One thing I didn’t investigate was the paneer situation. I might actually have to make my own. But the ingredients necessary for that are pretty much just whole milk and lemon juice and the ability to follow instructions. I have to trust that I still know how to do that.

In any event, we’re starting the evening off with these (recipe shamelessly nicked from Food & Drink magazine’s Holiday issue 2006):

Indian Pea and Potato Pancakes

The recipe calls for serving this with labneh, so if you’ve got some handy, go for it. If not, the recipe people suggest minted yogurt which sounds reasonable to me. “Stir coarsely chopped fresh mint, white onion and pepper into full-fat plain yogurt.” Exact quantities were not provided. But what the heck. It's just a yogurt dip, not world peace.

4 russet potatoes
1 onion
1 egg
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
¼ tsp coriander
¼ tsp cumin
½ tsp garam masala*
2 tbsp grated ginger
2 tbsp chopped cilantro
½ cup peas (frozen petit pois work well say the recipe people)
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable oil for frying
Minted yogurt (see above)

1. Peel and grate potatoes and onion in a food processor or by hand. Transfer to a sieve or kitchen towel and squeeze out excess water. In a large bowl, combine grated mixture with egg, flour, spices, ginger and cilantro. Stir in peas and season well with salt and pepper.
2. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a large heavy skillet over moderate heat. Drop mixture into skillet, a few spoonfuls at a time. (The recipe people say you can achieve crisp lacy pancakes by flattening with a spoon. I will do this!) Fry in batches, turning once, for 4 minutes a side or until golden brown.
3. Drain on paper towels and serve immediately with minted yogurt.

Makes 16 pancakes. (I expect to be doubling this, even though it's only going to be five of us. We do loves our fried food/pre-dinner nibblies.)

*Garam masala, whenever it was mentioned in an issue of Gourmet magazine prior to recent times, always had an asterisk next to it saying it could be found at Asian markets. Well, we don’t need to worry about that detail anymore at all, do we?

Have a great Sunday, everyone.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Going apple picking tomorrow...

... and I'm making myself a promise not to eat the first, second and third apple I pick. Don't do it, man. Just don't do it! And bring a hat, and don't forget to hard-boil some eggs.

Friday, September 21, 2007

This Week Thus Far

My literary activities this week thus far:

- the critiquing of the text of one website
- the filing of two articles
- the teaching of three consonants and six vowels to one first-grader
- the reading aloud of nine-and-a-half bedtime stories


-the proofreading of one full-page ad slated for publication in the New Yorker.

(Is it wrong to be just a little excited?)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

What's Croatian for Help?

by Tricia Dower

I have an aversion to doctors because I saw how poorly they served my mother. Some would call my aversion neurotic. I can’t remember the date of my last mammogram or Pap test. I have no idea if my blood pressure is too high, too low or, as Goldilocks would say, just right. I take no prescription drugs. Needless to say, I’m not a big user of the public health system. Recently, however, I developed a “condition.” Nothing requiring me to recline on a chaise, Camille-like, and cough into a lace-edged hanky, but it’s more worrisome than the eye infection I had a year ago for which a drop-in clinic worked just fine. I’ve decided it’s time, at long last, for a proper check-up. Time to see if my spark plugs and fan belts need replacing and which of my tires should be rotated.

My dentist recommended an MD who practices holistic medicine. I liked the sound of that. Unfortunately, the BC health plan for which we pay premiums doesn’t cover holistic practitioners.

I called a few doctors recommended by friends. They’re not taking new patients. One might have considered me if I was abusing alcohol. It was tempting.

I went to the Victoria Medical Society site for a list of doctors who are taking new patients. There were none in my immediate neighbourhood. Of the nine not too far away, three take only maternity patients and young families, two specialize in sports medicine, one has office hours only from 1 – 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and another just graduated this year. (I know, I know, somebody has to give the new grads a chance.) That left two at the same address who speak English and Serbo-Croatian and describe their practice as: Family medicine for patients 55 plus and do not have a family doctor or whose family doctor has retired and who are within the geographic location south of McKenzie Ave and east of Douglas St. Could that be me? I’m terrible at geography.

I called. After providing my address and swearing to my age, I passed the initial screening and was told to expect an application for care in the mail.

“I have to apply?”

“Oh yes.”

There’s something scammy about the government charging for scarce or unavailable services and refusing to cover the ones you can get.

The application came a few days ago. It’s a detailed medical history form. A friend told me she had to apply, too, and was advised by someone in the know not to come across as too medically needy. “They don’t want sick people,” she said.

A letter accompanying the form reads: If your needs meet our criteria, we will place your application on our waitlist. Our staff will then contact you to book your initial appointment with our registered nurse. Please note that we currently have a waitlist of up to two months.

According to one article I came across, more than four million Canadians can’t find a family doctor; we make do with drop-in clinics and hospital emergency rooms. Our doctor shortage is partly due to a 1991 commissioned report in which two health economists predicted that Canada was facing a physician surplus. In response, provincial governments cut first-year enrolment to Canadian medical schools by about ten percent. There are other factors, as well:

  • Doctors are aging and retiring like so many others.
  • Fewer med school grads select family practice, in part because many of them are coming out with big debts and see greater financial opportunity in other specialties.
  • A growing group of family doctors take care of their families as well as their practices and are choosing to work fewer hours a week.
  • One in nine Canadian-trained doctors migrates to the US.
  • Doctors from commonwealth countries can practice in Canada right away, but others must requalify and then complete a residency program. The number of residency spots is limited.

I’m ashamed to admit I was unaware of this predicament until it affected me. For years, I’ve defended Canada’s universal health system. The few times I needed it during the 24 years I lived in Ontario, I had excellent care with little waiting. I was not prepared for the shortage in Victoria. It’s a wonderful place to live. Why aren’t doctors storming the ferries? BC’s premier seems a little too willing to introduce private health care as a band-aid. I believe in the ideals behind a single system for all. We just need to fix that system.

I will send in my application and wait. If I knew Serbo-Croatian, I’d throw in a few words to strengthen my case.

Image by Swedish illustrator Tesa.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The CWC Reads: Grief, by Andrew Holleran

By Andrew Tibbetts

I am surprised at how much I’m enjoying Andrew Holleran’s “Grief”. It’s just out in paperback. It’s a short novel. It’s also everything I’ve been trying to avoid in my own writing lately. Wasn’t it just last month I was moaning about how movies should be gentler and short stories more aggressive? Wasn’t I begging for a literature of explosions and pirates? And here I am eating up a novel about a man, suddenly released from caring for his elderly mother by her death, who moves to Washington D.C. to spend his time wandering the museums.

This is the quietest book ever- even his landlord’s dog just looks out the window without barking. The loudest sound is a tap on the wall when his polite landlord wishes to ask him something. There are long sentences describing the things he sees in the museums. There are long passages where he sits and reads. And we read with him- the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln. He reflects on death, on AIDS, on aging. He talks about those things with his landlord and his one friend. He worries that he kept his mother ‘going’ long after she’d wanted to die- selfishly, for something to do with his time. He goes to galleries, concerts and museums. At one point, he goes to a bathhouse but it really is just like another museum visit since he just goes to look at the other men. He wanders the quiet halls poking his head into the rooms, taking things in.

So, why is it exhilarating? Well, there is the sublime pleasure of taking in such graceful prose as this:

“The feeling of vacancy always intensified the hour it took to walk the gradual ascent to Ward Circle—in part because the weather was always mild, and flabby, in part because I was almost always alone on that sidewalk; so alone I looked forward to the man, halfway to school, who sometimes stood outside the Vatican embassy holding a sign that said PRIESTS MOLEST CHILDREN WORLDWIDE. (…) Often in my loneliness I would stop and talk to him, listening to his story about the priest who’d suggested something untoward on a ski trip to the Dolomites when he was only fifteen, and then, with one more lamentation added to the world, I’d leave him behind, ringing his bell, like a buoy in a fog warning ships of a rock, a sound that followed me halfway to the National Cathedral, where I sometimes turned onto Cathedral Avenue—and started down the hill past faux Tudor homes with apple trees in their yards, and then, in a ravine, the huge apartment houses people never had to leave if they did not wish to.”

It’s pretty much like that the whole book. Interrupted only by bits of witty repartee he exchanges with his landlord and his friend, tiny scene-lets, like sizzling half-bar fills on the hi-hat between verses of mournful torch song. Indeed, the book is more like a graceful piece of music than a story, a dirge- perhaps like the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that simple, elegant, quiet, beautiful piece that somehow manages to thrill.

Every sentence in the book is suffused with grief. And grief is a holding pattern. And sometimes we do not want to stop holding. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, unable to recast her life after her husband’s assassination, wandering the country in black, an embarrassment, a national disgrace- losing her money, selling off her clothes, losing her mind. When the rest of the country wanted to move on, she did not, she would not, until eventually her surviving son (and she had a dead son, too) had her committed.

On its way from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, the book has some interesting things to share. There is pleasure in grief. A rightness, a grace. Grief is both pain and painkiller. This simple, elegant, quiet, beautiful novel thrills me, not with its insights, but with the emotional experience it creates in me. Beneath the meandering, beneath the rumination, it taps without fuss or bother into a wellspring of feeling. It is honey, it is ambergris, it is autumn, it is fog.

By the standards of any how-to-book on creative writing, this novel is a massive failure. It is apparently devoid of tension. There are long descriptions of apartments and furniture- belongings figure more prominently than the people they belong/belonged to. It concerns itself with weather. Nothing happens: dying animals never actually die, people on the verge of tears or anger never cry or shout, people can't decide what to do with their lives and can't decide and can't decide. It’s all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’. It’s exactly the kind of writing that many in my writers’ workshop complain about. I’d hate to see what they’d do to it. Put the unnamed narrator in a Winnebago, send him across the country meeting lovable kooks in exciting situations until he ‘learns to live again?’ And while we’re at it, let’s put some phat beats under that Beethoven and get Lil’ Wayne to rap over it!

(On the other hand, the narrator is unreliable, and more goes on than he cares to tell us. Beneath the calm book is another quite dramatic book about sex and love and decisions. But you will have to ferret that one out from clues, and it's possible to ignore it completely.)

Bless you, Andrew Holleran, for your rightness and grace, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for this beautiful novel.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


by Steve Gajadhar

An early warmup for Halloween.

Do you believe in ghosts? Most people do, but most people believe a lot of really funky stuff. And they believe these things as unconditionally and irrationally as they love, with no need for proof, or desire to question. Often the belief just has to feel right, and be shared by people close to the believer. Charismatic charlatans and hoaxers have taken advantage of this side of human nature for as long as we have been crawling around this rock we call home--ouija boards, séances, channeling, psychics communicating with the other side, the list is as endless as it is varied. Now television is joining the gang, and ratings for ghost shows are on the upswing.

Ghost Hunters is the current king of ghost TV. There are others out there, but Ghost Hunters is a show that actually claims to take a reasonably skeptical stance. They go into every investigation with the goal of proving or disproving the existence of paranormal phenomenon. TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society), the association that Ghost Hunters is affiliated with, accepts no money for their investigations. This is a commendable thing to do, but it’s a bit like the vacuum salesman who does your rug for free—someone will buy what he’s selling. I’m pretty sure Ghost Hunters makes a bit of money from selling commercials, and TAPS probably does alright with membership dues, t-shirt sales, and conference appearances. If you google “taps”, the official TAPS website is the top response. There is money to be made exploiting belief, especially if the exploiters firmly believe in what they are doing.

A typical episode starts with the trip to the location and a recap of the reported phenomena. Then we get a brief history of the site and the inevitable tragic event that has left the psychic/paranormal entities lingering around. The investigators will often speculate on camera about what sorts of things they will find before they even start their work--so much for a that skeptical attitude going in. The show then moves into the video investigation stage. This is almost always shot at night with crappy, poor resolution, yet supposedly hi-tech gear. The various cameras and squads of investigators never capture any conclusive video (there has never been a credible paranormal photo, video or audio recording since such technology has been in existence), but they do see a lot of things the viewer doesn’t and they do get a lot of feelings, which are of course backed up by their digital thermometers and EMF (electromagnetic field) sensors. For a bit of fun, I suggest a drinking game that makes you take a drink every time one of the investigators asks, “did you see that?!” That is usually a shadow, or some other movement that is never captured by the camera. Other great lines to incorporate into the game include: “did you hear that?” or, “did you feel that?” I tried it. I was blitzed after an episode and a half. Episodes typically end with the examination stage, where the investigators supposedly examine all that data they collected during their romp. It’s riveting stuff.

Alternative explanations for the observed and recorded phenomena are rarely given. So I figured I’d take a quick look at some of the tools of the trade I mentioned above.

Digital Thermometer
Investigators pour over the area with this beauty--high up in corners, low near the floor, nooks, crannies, the middle of the room--looking for any abnormal readings. Somehow a hot or cold spot is deemed evidence of a ghost or entity. If temperature differential is a true measure of paranormal activity, then every place on the planet is haunted. A volume of air will naturally have temperature variations, and these variations can be pretty extreme. Throw this reality into the invariably old and drafty haunted houses and the differentials will only get worse.

EMF detector
This baby goes hand in hand with the digital thermometer. Nearly everything around us emits an EM field, and EMF meters have been around a long time. Someone somewhere noticed a bump on a meter when they felt spooked and the rest is ghost hunting history. No conclusive evidence has ever linked EM fields with ghosts. An interesting study in Sudbury used EM fields on subjects and then documented their responses. The subjects were placed in a sealed room and had EEG leads taped to their melons. The results were varied and startling: noises, sensations, feelings of a presence nearby. Some of the subjects reported nothing at all. Maybe some of us are tuned into EM fields and some of us aren’t? Maybe the churning EM fields of our TVs, cell phones and power lines are the ghosts instead?

Audio recording devices
Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP). EVP is the holy grail of paranormal types, as in, ah ha! explain this! Okay I will. EVP is recorded snippets of voices or other sounds that are never heard during the recording, but are later heard upon playback--the recorder in the graveyard idea that some kids get up the courage to try (I did). According to paranormal types, EVP has been around as long as recording technology and it has never been debunked or explained. This is false. EVP came on the scene in 1959 after a fella named Friedrich Jurgenson wrote a book about it. EVP took off after this book planted the idea in the willing minds of all the paranormal investigators out there. EVP has been debunked, repeatedly. Another fella named David Ellis spent two years debunking EVP, he then wrote his own book about it. This book was largely ignored.

Hawaii has its own rich tradition of ghost folklore. The night marchers are undoubtedly the most famous of Hawaii’s ghost tales. The night marchers are the ghosts of dead warriors that band together and march through the night. Their arrival is heralded by drums and pounding feet and it is said that if you look at them they will kill you. Everyone has a story of a friend or a person they know who has seen the night marchers and lived to tell the tale. I had a discussion one night with some night marcher believers. A friend told me how her friend had seen the marchers in her hotel room. How this friend had screamed and called security, afraid she was going to die. She didn’t die. When I told my friend that I didn’t believe in ghosts, she asked me how I could possibly explain away the night marchers. Simple, I said. In any given year, how many people throughout the islands are discovered mysteriously dead in their beds, or tents, or wherever? None. If the night marchers really kill anyone who looks at them, and if they really exist, mightn’t there be a couple of unexplained deaths every year? She got very angry at me, and told me that the veil between worlds was very thin in Hawaii. She left shortly thereafter, unwilling to discuss it with me anymore. This is a disturbingly prevalent attitude whenever I try to engage in a rational discussion that questions any form of belief. I don’t understand why. I’m eager to learn things I don’t know, and the discovery of any truly unexplained phenomena would have to rate as one of the greatest learning experiences ever. Science does not explain everything, it doesn’t claim to. But science does explain a lot of things, and it explains away a lot of other things. We shouldn’t hand out the unexplained label too quickly, lest we forget that electricity was once a mysterious force, or that climate change was once a hoax.

The world needs a healthy dose of skepticism. At the very least we should always apply the concept of Occam’s razor, which directly translates from the original Latin as “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity,” but is paraphrased by modern scholars in two ways:

1. All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the right one.

2. We should not assert that for which we do no have some proof.

I’m not sure where I stand on the harm that comes from false belief, certainly people are entitled to believe whatever they want, but I can’t help but hope that some of us are willing to examine our beliefs and perhaps change them if the evidence compels us to. Shows like Ghost Hunters are multiplying at an alarming rate. I’m worried that this coincides with schools teaching the alternative cosmological model of a world that is only 6,000 years old, and that we didn’t evolve from apes (because we didn’t, we branched off a long time ago). I’m worried that this increase in irrational TV points to a rise in irrational belief and a withdrawal (perhaps even a backlash) from science. In a world full of cars and computers this is a very profound form of irony. I hope it never becomes tragic irony.

Suggested reading:
Mary Roach, "Spook"
Carl Sagan, "The Demon Haunted World"
Michael Shermer, "Science Friction"
Pretty much anything by Richard Dawkins

Monday, September 17, 2007


By Tamara Lee

Write what you want to read. That old chestnut, lately, does not easily resonate for me in its reverse--Read what you’d like to write--in terms of contemporary Canadian literature.

The other day, a guy I know, who grew up nose-to-book in the back of his family’s used bookstore, who himself now manages a bookstore, stated that he does not ‘read Canadian.’ It’s something I remember from when we were both bookstore clerks at the store he now manages, but it still hit me hard. He pressed on, explaining that the contemporary Canadian stories and novels he’s read, apart from Carol Shields, are pretentious, over-wrought and/or boring. ‘Geist,’ he remarked, ‘puts me to sleep by page 3.’

Feeling defensive, but knowing his tastes run along the lines of novelists like Martin Amis and David Mitchell, I tried but couldn’t think of anyone off-hand who is currently, distinctly, not-boring, not-safe or not-earnest. That is until I remembered that guy named Pasha Malla. Phew. There’s one. ‘Does he write novels?’ Sigh. No, not yet. But I heard a rumour one is forthcoming (and a story collection is due 2008). Nonetheless, my friend told me he’d seek out Pasha’s work, seemed pleased to be proved just a little wrong, even enthusiastic that there could possibly be a new wave of Canadian writers who don’t come off as trying too hard.

These past couple of months, I have been going through a novel-reading dry spell. It’s been mostly memoirs and creative non-fiction, and of the few novels I did pick up, only one was Canadian, Steven Heighton’s ‘The Shadow Boxer.’ I was excited by its first few pages, by its loose and confident humour, its subtle poetry. And then, as if by some Canada-Council mandate, it became suddenly thick with clever and laden with adjectives. I put it aside and picked up a collection of Grace Paley stories.

Don’t get me wrong, I do love lyrical, magic-filled writing and have been known to dive deep into Marquez and Ondaatje, emerging drenched and fulfilled from all that beauty and poetry. But they seem, now, to represent a sport I am no longer as enthusiastic about as once I was. It could be a phase, or it could be that those are not the kinds of stories I want to tell any more.

It seems I want the sort of unpretentious, gritty, novel (or memoir) told with a bit of humour, of the kind Canadians are not publishing right now. No highbrow academic wit, no neon-poignancy, please. Poignancy ought to be the gentle reward of a well-told tale, not the inspiration for telling it. It should creep up behind you and maybe scare the bejesus out of you, startling you into recognising something (maybe unsavoury) in yourself you didn’t know you believed.

And so what is it about contemporary Canadian novels that seems so earnest, so pining, so needy; yet seemingly so afraid to take brazen risks or to get really messy? Is that really the Canadian truth?

Perhaps this is just a stage in our literary timeline, and it could mean we too will have a reactionary spurt, similar to the one that gave Britain its spate of exciting young writers some 20 years ago-to-now. How long must we wait to get beyond what our wise and wonderful Andrew Tibbetts has called ‘kitchen sink stories’?

But I’m not just talking about short stories. I am talking mainly about Canadian novels that will inspire us to await anxiously for the next one, to want to read the author’s entire backlist, not because we have to, to fulfill our Canadian lit class requirements, but because we are compelled to see what other fascinating and thrilling observations she or he may have.

While Canadian short stories continue to impress, with some exciting work floating around out there by some young (and not so young) writers, I could not contest my friend’s other point (one that made me blush in recognition of my own recent efforts) about the deluge of Canadian linked-story collections seen clogging the remainder bins at our bookstore for years. Could it be our best writers are actually afraid of the novel? Have we somehow frightened our writers into believing that novel-writing is for…gulp…others?

I will return to that previously mentioned abandoned-read soon, I am sure, and hope to confess on this very blog that I was wrong and it’s among my favourite novels, not just favourite Canadian novels. In the meantime, I am embarking on David Mitchell’s ‘Black Swan Green,’ highly recommended by my bookstore pal.

And I will continue to seek out more contemporary Canadian novels that fit my current tastes, because, like my friend, I want to be proved wrong.

(Image credit: Verisimilitude1)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Time off... kinda

Though I am passionate about my writing, it does come second to almost everything else in my life. This week, I finally made good on a promise I’d made to my father-in-law a few years ago and built him a mini-carport that extends out from around his garage door. I know, sounds like a strange thing to construct. And it’s not really a carport because the only part of the car that’ll fit inside is the front end. So why use up the days off from work, not to mention the valuable writing time, building this strange shelter. Two reasons. 1) He’s a great guy and has hardly ever asked me for a favor in all the years I know him. That may be reason enough, but there’s more. 2) His Tempo doesn’t quite make it to the sidewalk without the carport, so this’ll take care of that few feet of driveway he has to shovel in the winter. What’s a Tempo? It’s a tarp-like shelter for the car. Why can’t he use the garage for his car? It’s full of his junk. How much writing did I get done this week? You’re looking at it. But that’s okay. I’ve learned not to be afraid of those weeks where little or no writing gets done. When I do finally sit down to catch up, I’ll be surprised and thrilled at how new the prose will feel, and that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it -- that, and the father-in-law’s joy at getting his mini-carport, finally, are reward enough.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Another Four-Letter Word that Starts with F

by Melissa Bell

They say the best things in life are free. “They”, obviously, did not include an individual at a former place of employment – an individual who considered pretty much anything to be a superior item as long as it was out of the price range of 99.99% of everybody on the planet. However, if said item was beyond even his own huge paycheque, then said item was simply an overpriced piece of junk.

There is one best thing in life, however, that is even better than free. But you have to smoke cigarettes to really enjoy the pay-off. Like banging one’s head against a wall repeatedly, the full appreciation of a pain-free existence can only be realized when the head-banging ends. And so it has been with smoking. I walked into my neighbourhood convenience store today to cash in my 6/49 tickets (two free plays – go me!) and saw that my old brand of cig was up to $9.25 for a pack of 25. Let’s do the math on that for a bit, shall we? That’s a lot – no, that’s an obscene amount – of money every month spent on something that is dirty, smelly, and downright deadly. So I’m grateful I used to smoke. And then quit. Otherwise I would have missed out on that feel-good moment today.

Other “free” stuff that happened recently:

- With a coupon that came in the mail, I was able to get a free sample box of [insert ‘ladies’ only’ personal item here] a few weeks ago. Upon opening one of the personal items in the box, however, it was of a condition that was certainly not fit for personal use. I suppose if I were living in the U.S., I’d be a millionaire now because of what I found. But for this Canadian gal, straight reimbursement wasn’t even an issue – how could I be entitled to something I didn’t even pay for? However I did take some pictures and e-mailed them to the company. (Hi! Look at me! I have free time!) They sent me $20 more in free product coupons and return postage for the box. I thought that was very nice.

- Also a few weeks ago, a young man arrived at my doorstep with several new energy-efficient light bulbs, a water-saving showerhead, a new aerator for my kitchen faucet, and a piece of foam pipe insulation. He just handed them to me – they were free. Or kind of free. “From the government,” he said. Huh. I love this country.

- I’ve been collecting Air Miles and PetroPoints for a while now. For the former, I don’t even bother considering collecting enough for any air travel – but as long as I keep collecting them, I don’t think I’ll ever have to pay for a ticket to the ROM ever again. As for the former, I’m looking at a future of never having to spend another penny for windshield washer anti-freeze or gas station beef jerky. Boo-yah.

- Make-up counters are big on the freebies. So they should be, given the outrageous mark-ups on the products. But still. Watching the salesperson at my health shoppe toss little sample bits of this and that into the bag before she hands me my purchase is one of life’s little girly thrills. Sucks for the environment (Hello there, extra packaging!) but hey, at least I’m not smoking.

- Pre-paid envelopes. I have a question of a potentially criminal nature. Say one gets one of those pre-paid envelopes in a piece of unsolicited mail – instead of throwing the pre-paid envelope away, is it okay to cross off the pre-printed address and write in the address of someone else? I’ve never done this, but I just thought about it now. Would it be considered “stealing” or “repurposing”? WWJD? Answers appreciated.

Have a lovely Friday, friends, and if you get a proper weekend, do have fun with it!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Anarchy 101

by Tricia Dower

If anarchist Emma Goldman made it into my high school history texts, she probably found it hostile territory. In those days, criticizing capitalist values and fomenting dissent was more dangerous than admitting you thought about sex. Anarchistic principles were linked to communism, and communism was the scariest monster under your bed.

Until last week’s Second Annual Victoria Anarchists Book Fair, I had not revisited the beliefs I formed about anarchism way back when. But there I was, among mostly younger folks, many bearing multiple bodily piercings and t-shirts with defiant or satiric messages. We participated in workshops about conditioned obedience vs. free will, pirate radio, the poetic tactics of shock and surprise, challenging colonial mentalities, non-violence and eco-defense. The printed program cautioned against taking photographs without explicit permission. It's still not safe to be openly anti-authoritarian. Terrorism, not communism, is now hiding under that bed and in the closet, as well.

As only fitting for a book fair, literature was available for sale or barter in one huge room at the event site. Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and Howard Zinn were three author names I recognized. Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press, Black Cat Press, Fun is Free Press, Red Lion Press and Spartacus Books were there. You could find something on almost any topic supporting the event’s stated values of “mutual aid, direct democracy, direct action, anti-authoritarianism, autonomy and solidarity” or opposing “capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, colonialism, statism and all other forms of oppression.” Also available were patches, t-shirts and hats offering messages to suit your own brand of rebellion: Thinking is unpatriotic. Revolt. Disrupt. Cops rule. Property is theft. Remember when racism ended?

My primary motivation for attending was to gather research for a story I’m writing. (Is there ever another reason? I’m pathetic.) But as I took notes, some of the concepts started to make sense. I am loath to even jaywalk yet I began to see the logic in more rebellious positions. Why should media conglomerates decide who gets to speak or perform on radio? There’s plenty of room on the airwaves. Why should large corporations have the right to damage our environment while those who try to stop them are branded criminals?

An intense discussion ensued during the workshop on non-violence. “Violence is not effective in achieving anarchist goals,” the facilitator stated. When he made a grudging exception for self-defense, one woman spoke emotionally about her belief that fighting what the “system” does to us is self-defense. A man who had been imprisoned said violence inflicted by the government against him had been quite effective in limiting his resistance. Others were similarly passionate, and I recalled a younger self who railed against injustice and experienced genuine grief at the suffering of others. Exactly when did those ideals transmogrify into don’t make within the system…get along...keep your nose clean...mind your own business?

I like to think of myself as a defender of the defenseless, but what do I actually do besides pontificate in privileged comfort? How bad would injustice and oppression have to get for me to risk imprisonment or death by defiant action? Would I have stood before that tank at Tian’anmen Square?

I don’t want to answer those questions.

Photo: A determined looking 21-year-old Emma Goldman in New York, 1890, by Komow and Landa photographers. Here’s a link to the teacher’s guide for a PBS documentary about her. I’m encouraged by its suggestion that students explore Goldman’s statements and writings in relationship to present-day issues, including the war in Iraq and restrictions on civil liberties. Goldman died in Toronto in 1940.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Spoken by the Chicken

By Andrew Tibbetts

Busy squeezes out writing time. It’s September and that’s the real new year when you work at a University, only there’s no champagne.

Even writing this blogpost is difficult because I’m run off my feet, never mind the story I’ve got due by Sunday.

Sometimes I think: ah, if only I had nothing to do but write. But then I think: what would I write about?

Sometimes writers’ first books are better than their later ones. As they become “professional”, there’s less and less of the ordinary working stiff life that they have to participate in. Perhaps that’s why ‘late masterpieces’ are often ruminations on the ‘artistic life’. And dull. Kind of like later Rolling Stones albums- I mean, what do elderly millionaires have to sing about- with any passion? Tax shelters?

But luckily, I have no such luck. I’m blessed with plenty of the ordinary anxieties of life. Busy squeezes out writing time, but it also squeezes out writing. Stay tuned for my new novel novella short story flash fiction piece anecdote haiku: Headless September- coming soon whenever to wherever good literature can be found.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Monsieur Mugs, the Drama and the Enduring Fame

This is the grade that my daughter is supposed to learn how to read. To this end, her teacher sends home different books each week—slim, delicate things swaddled in Ziploc. The characters wear the clothing of my nursery school years: saddle shoes and Mary Janes, scarves that somehow manage to look homemade in shades of orange and brown. I don’t have to check the publication date to know that these books are as old as I am. But I have never seen them before.

They weren’t on the curriculum where I went to school in Ontario.
There, we learned to read with Mr. Mugs, a white and grey sheepdog with a red collar. I remember him fondly, but what they’ve been reading here in Quebec all this time seems more exciting somehow. The story we read last night was about a gender-less child with a very pretty, very pregnant mother. On page ten, we see her, legs spread, on the delivery table: our perspective is that of the doctor in the process of catching her emerging baby. True, our view is unimpeded by any impertinent hairs, but that more likely reflects obstetrical practice of the time than any prudery on the part of the artist.

I can’t help but wonder: if Mr. Mugs had incorporated a little more nudity or raw drama, would he still be in harness today? As it is, he’s hard to find at all, even online, where he keeps a low profile, so low, in fact, that one blogger has taken it upon himself to post the first book of the series on Flickr so that "future generations" may benefit from the cultural lessons of our literary past. Thanks, Toronto Mike.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rewinds and Redux

By Tamara Lee

On what could well be the last hot weekend of the summer, I spent a lot of it doing little more than staring down a change-of-season flu/cold thing, and indulging in deep avoidance. The avoidance part was relatively enjoyable, apart from the occasional visitation of nausea, so I shouldn’t feel guilty. But I do. Is there such a thing as the guilt-free writer?

Instead I managed a mere 800 words, no subs, and a lot of additions to The Lists.

Actually, this is one of the hardest times of year for me, as the to-do list grows, the should-list gets ignored, and the I-wanna list gets tended to most diligently. And the cold-hard fact of winter sits waiting at the bottom of the page.

It’s a challenge trying to beat off autumn when my internal time clock insists the summer’s over—a good three weeks (and potentially two more, if we get that Indian Summer I keep insisting we’re going to have) ahead of the season’s actual expiry date.

We are all familiar with that urge to rewind time: that hard-wired desire to do-over when one feels something has been missed, or has not been done quite correctly. Not just regret, but that fleeting disappointment that comes with the changing of a season.

In Canada, by mid-July, we seem to think our summers are invincible, that there’s plenty of time left. We feel wholly capable of mending a fence, a habit, a relationship, when the timing’s right, because there’s just so much time left.

And yet, come Labour Day, we’re mixing ourselves a cocktail of melancholy, angst and anticipation, served in a tall glass with ice.

Still, there are likely a few good weeks left of summer, and Vancouver’s WestEnder Magazine has a helpful list of 49 things to do before summer's end.

For me, it hasn’t been a good summer unless I’ve been on the water at least once (even if it’s just bombing around on one of the water ferries on False Creek), barbequed wild sockeye salmon, taken long walks or biked along the Seawall, gone on a road trip of some kind, eaten bucketloads of local corn-on-the-cob and peaches and strawberries, and sat out in the sun drinking summery cocktails with friends. Simple pleasures, really. But without having done them, I feel in need of a summer-rewind.

There are a few more things to get to before I can call this summer over.

So, what do you plan to do with the rest of yours?

(image credit: doudoucorp)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Chudobiak, Anne 2008-9 ($??,???)

I just made the disturbing discovery that the government of Quebec posts online the number and dollar amounts of all provincial grants awarded to writers in recent history. This means, for instance, that you can look up how much was given to Rawi Hage in 2006-7 ($19,000), or that you can know who to ask for help on your next grant application. I would suggest Jeffrey Moore ($18,000 in 2001 plus $600 for travel and other goodly amounts other goodly years), also Robyn Sarah, Carole David, Élise Turcotte.

These lists make for fascinating reading and were probably designed to occupy the minds of those of us who do not yet qualify as professional writers. Thank you, Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec!

p.s. A review of A.L.Kennedy's novel Day here.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Fecalphobia Not Allowed

by Tricia Dower

Colin and I toured what will be “the first code-approved, load bearing, high-occupancy two-story cob home in North America.” Located on eight acres in the Highlands area of greater Victoria, it will be 1550 square feet when done and house three generations of Ann and Gord Baird’s family. You can read more about them and their philosophy here. Although a cob house is sculpted of earth, sand and straw, the one they’re building doesn’t look too Hobbit-like and you can’t huff and puff and blow the place down.

Ann is 40 and Gord, 37. When I was forty I was living the upward mobility life in a four-bedroom, two-story, energy-gobbling house. A few years later, I moved to an even bigger place. Recycling, composting, reusing grey water and cobbing were not in my vocabulary. Sustainability? That meant working hard to keep the money coming in.

Oh, years before, when the kids were little, I had fantasies of raising them in the woods where I’d label the flora (pine, spruce, fern, foxglove, wild garlic, poisonous mushroom) as part of their home schooling and deer would come for the salt lick we set out. To dry-run the dream, I rented a rustic cabin for a long weekend and nearly killed us all lighting the propane stove. In truth, I’m not that into roughing it.

Ann and Gord’s home will be powered by the sun and wind and use a grid inter-tie net metering system with BC Hydro. Solar water heating tubes will provide domestic hot water and hydronic in-floor heat. The home will also feature a rain water catchment system and composting toilets and re-use all of its grey water (from bathing, laundry and dishwashing) for irrigation of fruit trees. Organic vegetable gardens are planned for the future. Chickens roamed free the day we visited. A particularly nervy rooster named Mr. Doo pecked at the decorative buttons at the bottom of my three-quarter length pants. I’m not that into roosters either.

Part of the tour was a presentation about waste water by eco-consultant Angela Evans. There is no such place as “away” when it comes to waste, she told us, yet we treat our oceans and rivers as though their health has little to do with ours. For example, medications make their way into the sea through the human waste our treatment plants (and cruise ships) dump into them. Designed to break down in fat, not water, meds retain their properties and get into the fish we eat. Tuna on steroids? Along with your salmon, halibut and cod, you may be getting somebody’s hypertension pills or worse.

According to Angela, the average human produces only one cup of “poo” (her word) and two cups of urine each day, yet we use five gallons of water to flush it away. She encouraged us to test out Ann and Gord’s outdoor flushless, composting toilet. (They’ll have one or more inside the house). Constructed according to the Joseph Jenkins method described in the Humanure Handbook, this type of toilet uses wood chips, evaporation, the addition of carbon and a process for recycling waste into compost. I can tell you honestly that it didn’t smell. But it calls for more responsibility than most of us are prepared to take on as well as a willingness to deal with what Ann and Gord call “fecalphobia.”

Ironically, although a composting toilet costs only about $150 to construct, Ann and Gord had to spend $30,000 to install a septic field they’ll never use so they could pass the housing inspection. What’s more, because they required a lot of land, they ended up in an area in which you’re dependent on a car. I like our city home from which we can walk to nearly everything we need, but I also admire this family. They may be the only ones with power and operational toilets when the environmental reckoning comes.

Photo credits: Ann and Gord Baird (Deddeda Stemmler); model of cob house (from Ann and Gord’s site); Mr. Doo and part of his harem (me); how the house looked a few weeks ago (Caspar Davis) .

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


by Steve Gajadhar

How many of you dig out your old high school yearbooks from time to time? Fess up. Even I’m guilty of this, if only to remind myself how silly my tinted glasses and long hair looked back in the early 90s. Nostalgia is a wonderful thing. Nostalgia is also a potential moneymaker of gigantic proportions, a fact the dorkier (and smarter) looking dudes in our old yearbooks pounced on. Classmates, WAYN, HI5, there are dozens of social connection websites and purveyors of online nostalgia that my friends have been inviting me to over the years. I ignored these invites for the most part, but a few months back I peeped over my wife’s shoulder while she was surfing and asked her what the heck she was doing. That, folks, was my introduction to and now I’m an unwilling but active member.

Facebook can take as little or as much of your time as you want. You can spend hours hunting down friends and family, or like me, you can just log in from time to time to send a quick message to your buddies telling them when you’re coming home, or how stupid they look in that picture. It’s a great way to kill an hour at work (if your employer hasn’t already blocked the site). You could even start up a Facebook group for your office and coordinate happy hour. If your employer rags on you for it, just remind them about productivity levels before the communication revolution and tell them to relax a little bit, maybe check it out for themselves.

I just spent an hour facebooking (the internet is great for inventing new verbs) through all the new stuff since I last logged on. Now I’m all misty. Facebook grows like a virus or a successful pyramid scheme: leave it alone for a week or two and you come back to more friends, more pictures and more memories. Someone even posted a pic of me from elementary school. No wonder I had a hard time with girls back then….

The real beauty of Facebook is that it can be whatever you want it to be. You can use it as an anti-Proustian measurement of the passage of time (cause who really wants to read 40 pages about falling asleep when two words, or a picture will do), or you can use it for keeping in touch, looking at photos of the town you grew up in, the schools you attended, you could even use it to advertise à la Myspace. Unfortunately everything Facebook is not all for the good. Facebook can and will be used to do bad things. I’m sure there are people out there illegally sharing porn, movies and music, exam questions, college essays, etc. Undoubtedly there are Facebook stalkers trying to talk to kids. Any utility shared by millions of people will provide niches for nefarious characters, just like any city full of millions of people has alleys you don’t want to venture down. Like all things internet, use common sense: if you don’t want your house broken into, don’t advertise that you’re going to be away for 2 weeks.

But enough already, go ahead and check it out for yourself. Do a quick search for your friends. Don’t be surprised if most of them are on there and don’t blame me if you sign up. We could even start a “Friends of the CWC” group and get all our readers to sign up and share pics, stories, etc. Now I have to figure out a way to get Facebook to pay me for all this free advertising. And I also have to use Tamara’s handy copyright info to make sure I’m not going to get my balls sued off for using Facebook without written permission.

Monday, September 03, 2007

First Person

By Tamara Lee

Typical. I’m trolling the Internet for information on one thing, and I wind up immersed in an entirely new thing. We’ve all been there; we’ll all be there again. That’s the beauty and the hell of the Web.

So, initially, I was going to talk to you all about that ever-exciting issue amongst writers: copyright. Now before your eyes glaze over and you scroll down, you will be happy to know that I am able to address this in one paragraph, and move on with the help of a nice sequitur.

As I take my first tentative steps into the world of ‘freelance writer,’ that foreign land of copyright law looms mysterious. Luckily I happened upon the Periodical Writers of Canada website, where I located some useful resources complemented by a rolling collection of relevant links for freelancers.

It is a daunting path I’m setting foot upon, mostly because I don’t know enough about freelancing to feel safe. Writing fiction and sending it out, yeah, I’m getting the hang of it. But since starting up here at the CWC, I’ve become quite fond of the personal essay. And this relatively ‘new’ form of self-reflective writing is so very 21st century.

We all seem to want connection, a chance to engage. As quickly as the new technologies evolve, we morph to accommodate our deepest human needs: communication and recognition.

The first person, the I in the stories we tell, may not be the sole carrier of ‘truth’, but in our world—which has come to expect a ‘truth enough-ness’, to officially accept ‘truthiness’ into its vernacular, both ironically and now necessarily—the I is one of the most engaging forms of contact. Creative non-fiction meets the Internet, and a wealth of opportunities abound.

The link on PWAC’s site that got me thinking about this, is Jeff Howe’s Wired article pointing to a few examples of how folks are engaging and leaving their stamps online including the latest in cheap labour hitting print media, ‘crowdsourcing’, when print media employs the average Joe or Jane to contribute, pretty much for free.

Quite literally, it seems everyone’s got a story to tell, and there are more and more places for us to tell our little first-person tales. Travel sites are looking for poignant stories of self-revelation from travellers; newspapers and broadband/TV stations seek your POV content. Radio gags for it more than ever, now that there is so much competition moving in on what was once their domain.

As the whole world becomes entranced by first-person revelations, is there a risk involved? Howe reminds us, ‘The emphasis on the local generally comes at the expense of the regional and national.’

This is something I’ve noticed lately with the new CBC site and its TV news restructuring. I now need to troll the Web to get any significant international news. Enough with the ‘local colour’ stories, I want to know what’s happening in the rest of the world too.

How does all this first person, localized storytelling bring us closer together and keep us well informed? Could it not merely insulate us, protecting us within this vacuum of I’s and truth-enoughness? Who fact-checks the first person accounts anyway?

I don’t have the answers, just the questions, as I consider this style I’ve come to enjoy not just writing, but reading as well. There's something about reading how others live and see the world that I find comforting and inspiring. But how do we keep the Internet from turning into a puddle of Reader’s Digest-style anecdotes?

Which, rather surprisingly, brings me back to copyright. As more and more average Joes and Janes access their writer-within, sending off their stories for all to share, it’s important to remember that some news outlets hold copyright not just on your personal notes and slides for a feature article, but potentially on your personal stories too.

Often, the first person just doesn't belong to us.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Saved by the laundry

By Antonios Maltezos

I got angry without reason. I’d taken something my wife had said, played with it in my mind, and turned it into something else, losing my cool. This is how I remember the argument ending: “Fine,” I said, “I’ll wash my own clothes.”

I’m not sure what had precipitated my outburst, or what I was thinking making such a threat, such an offer, but I did, and the children heard me, binding me as if by contract to do at least one load if I wanted to prove myself, puff up my chest afterwards. Hey, I said I’d do it, and I did. My word is good.

But it was one of those outbursts I was regretting even before I’d finished out-bursting.

“Just tell me how this machine works,” I said in a shaky voice. “Is dis da bleach?” I was already looking for a way out. Craaaank! I turned one of the knobs. Craaank! – the next one over, my wife’s original settings lost to me if she were to walk away now, my shirts, my shorts, my socks – surely to be ruined. How? Not certain. Would they disintegrate, change colors, shrink? What? What?!?

“Gimme that,” she said, yanking the bleach from my hand.

Thank God! Hallelujah! What a close call!

I said I didn’t remember what had precipitated the argument, but now that I’m thinking on it, she may have asked that I carry the heavy basket of clean clothes upstairs from the basement laundry room. “Can’t it wait one minute,” I may have answered back in a snappy tone. I don’t know.

Maybe she’d been complaining about all those loads of laundry she does every week and how hard it was just getting some help bringing the clothes upstairs. I don’t know. I did offer, once, to construct a laundry chute from the top floor down to the basement through the closets. It was doable. It was doable. I got the idea from an old neighbor who’d told me he had paid only forty-five thousand dollars for his home. The previous owner had opened gaping holes through the floors for a fireplace, mmm, or a laundry chute. But it would be different for me. I could do it, finish the job and not have to sell the house. Still haven't figured out how to transport the clean clothes back upstairs, but I will. I will.

Maybe I’d been the one complaining. You send a pair of socks down to the basement, and they come back inside out. Good for keeping the lint out of the socks, but man, what a waste of time in the morning having to put the socks on like gloves so you can turn them inside out. Who’s got time for this? Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe not.

Maybe none of what I’ve just said ever happened. Maybe I can see my lovely wife from where I’m sitting at the moment, in front of the computer down here in the basement. We have it set up in an unused corner. It’s an office with only two walls. She’s in the laundry room with the door open. She’s been folding clothes for a couple hours now, the zippers and buttons going around and around in the dryer. Sississiiit! I’m enjoying the company, actually. Sississiiit! We catch up, figure stuff out, yell up at the kids every ten minutes or so. Sississiiit! It’s nice, sississiiit, kinda, sississiiit, but without the solitude that’s mostly overrated.

Maybe I sat down a little too late to work on this post. Sississiiit! And I have no one to blame but myself. Sississiiit!