March 16th, 2015

On Pedagogy

My article on children learning to read, “How to Learn to Read (if You Don’t Already Know)” is out in Canadian Notes and Queries. It’s a great issue, with reviews by some of my favourite people, like Mark Sampson and Kerry Clare. Even the pieces by non-close-friends are awesome, like an article by Stephen Henighan (he seems like a good guy, but we don’t often hang) on Mavis Gallant’s mother–who knew that was exactly what I wanted to read, but it was.

My own article was a big challenge for me, because it’s as near as I dare tread to journalism. I mean, it isn’t–it has way too much about my experiences in kindergarten to be legit journalism, but I did actually interview people and track down lots of interesting information. Teaching and learning are some of my favourite topics of late. It’s no surprise, probably, since I work in textbooks but don’t actually have a background in education. I see a lot of pedagogical talk going on, and I’m slowly piecing together how things work–at least a little.

The best thing, though, is talking to actual students. I got the chance to do so a couple weeks ago, when I went to visit the Writers’ Craft class at Watertown High. It was a fun group engaged, chatty teens and I enjoyed myself though I was a bit exhausted by the end of the hour. Standing at the front of a group 25 eager faces, trying to entertaining and engaging and actually share something useful is very very hard. The coolest thing was that the teacher of that class was MY Writers’ Craft teacher, someone who taught me a lot way back in 1997. I mentioned this fact to the class when I arrived and a murmur quickly went through the room–I heard someone whisper “birthday!” It turns out that is the YEAR THEY WERE ALL BORN. I am twice as old as the grade 12s of today. Alarming. But brilliant that they still have such a great class at their disposal in the age of disappearing electives, and such a great teacher there to teach it to them. Thanks, Waterdown High–and thanks, Ms. North!!

March 6th, 2015

Current Obsessions: House-Hunting

This is almost not a “current” obsession anymore, as I’ve more or less given up on actually buying a house, and that kind of takes the thrill out of the hunt (though I’m still reading the listings, of course, with the idea that if there were something REALLY good I’d go see it). I’ve long thought that I couldn’t begin to enter the crazed Toronto housing market (remember when I pointed that out nearly a year ago?) But everyone said of course, you could buy a house and encouraged my husband and I, and for a while we got swept up and got a real estate agent, got approved for a mortgage, and started going and looking at houses.

What happened then was that we found out that having a “budget” and looking at the listings according to “price” was foolhardy. Many of the houses in our budget were gleefully described as “a handyman’s dream.” Not being a handyman, I’ve never had those dreams, I guess, and the houses just looked like neglected older homes, many with uninsurable wiring, asbestos in the basements, leaks in the walls, or oddly placed shower stalls (one place had two in one bathroom cancelling out almost all floor space; another had one that opened directly into the rec room). But there are also a small number of reasonably cute, reasonably well-located, non-disintegrating houses in our price range. We call these “lies.”

Apparently, sometimes a realtor will price a nice house really low so as to attract more interest and, oh cruel irony, bid up the price very high in the end, higher than a normal we-can’t-afford-it-house. The only house we even considered putting in a bid on recently sold for $136 000 over asking. So basically, you can’t shop by budget–you can only sort through the listings and try to imagine which houses look sad enough to actually sell for something you can afford. This gets depressing quickly.

And also, we already have a nice place to live. Well, nice enough. Well, we could probably find something nicer. Or something. We’re going to move soon, somewhere, probably. It depends on the day you ask me. The existence of the apartment we already have hasn’t really cheered me in this round of the no-house blues (considering the amount of cognitive dissonance that went into the foredoomed house-hunting of the past little while, do you think it’s possible I will forget the whole mess AGAIN and want to start all over in 6 months? Oh no!) Things that have cheered me are
–the time we went to a really posh bar for no reason with Mark’s colleagues and Mark picked up the tab for everyone, because we have a little extra money and it’s nice to do things like that
–the big snow storms we’ve had recently, wherein we did not have to shovel anything
–the fact that our pipes didn’t freeze when so many of our friends’ did (not that we do not feel bad for those friends!)
–the freeing up of Sunday afternoons now that we aren’t going to look at houses

One of the really interesting things that this process showed me is what life might be like if I were not a writer. Not that I believe I’d have more money in that scenario–I’d probably just have the same job I currently do minus the small but pleasant trickle of writing income. It’s that I’d have so much *time.* I glean from the realtor and other house hunters that some people view houses multiple times a week, even on weeknights, and then they go to a bunch of open houses on top of THAT! They read all the listings and watch real-estate tv shows! AND they think nothing of going from this gruelling process directly into major home renovations that would take up even more time. It’s shocking and baffling. I have no free time to speak of–even tonight, when I’m going to eat takeout and watch Dr. Strangelove with my husband, is a long-planned treat. There are no empty slots in my schedule. Non-writing people are weird!

Other things I’ve learned about my fellow humans come from visiting the houses themselves, such as
–other people have very few things. I recognize that many of the houses we saw were at least lightly staged and heavily cleaned, but the reason I know the lack of stuff was real is that there was no space to accommodate it. Most living rooms we saw contained a sectional sofa and a flat-screen tv hanging from the opposite wall. Often that was ALL, and if there was more it was perhaps a single framed painting and a floor lamp. I don’t think of myself as really materialistic, and yet, you want to know what my living room contains? a) 6 Billy bookcases that contain over 2000 box plus assorted framed and unframed photos, candles, and other knickknack, b) a sizeable stereo system, the last of the really good ones that were large (from around 2002), with three components (amplifier, cd player and tape player [yes, there’s also a hookup for an iPod) all on a little wheeled cart, plus two toaster-sized speakers, c) a tube tv on a large cupboard that contains DVDs, a blu-ray player, a VCR, a Wii, and a bunch of Wii games and accessories, d) a coffee table covered in house plants, e) a second coffee table used as a coffee table, with an under shelf full of magazines, f) a side table for coasters and remote controls, g) two easy chairs and a small couch, h) two floor lamps, i) two end tables turned sideways to double as a console table/shoe rack. Yes, part of the problem is that our technology is outmoded, but I can’t see spending $1000 to replace the TV and stereo just so they would fit in a RIDICULOUSLY TINY TORONTO LIVING ROOM.
–some people live without bureaus. This is more on the previous point, I guess, but fascinating in that where is their underwear and socks? Toronto people REALLY know how to use a closet, though–some of the systems I’ve seen, with multiple layers and levels, are really impressive
–things I think are necessary–like a door on the bedroom–are to some people not necessary
–some people are very very bad at home repair and apparently have no idea. Who would caulk a window themselves, get the caulk all over the glass, and just leave it like that?
–I hate basements! Hate them. Many Toronto basements are very dark and almost windowless (especially in row houses) and if they are unfinished seem to even have dirt floors. They are criss-crossed at the ceiling with both wires and clotheslines, and the ceilings are often barely 6 feet, so it is easy to self-strangle. Always the worst part of the tour.

This is becoming a rant, so maybe I’ll end it here–probably I’ll continue to obsess but hopefully not too badly. Houses–they are the flame, I am the moth!

February 27th, 2015

Why Life Is Hard for Extroverts Too

This started out as a joke post, parodying those insufferable articles about how introverts are actually must smarter, deeper, kinder, and more sensitive than extroverts. In trying to equalize our perceptions of intros and extros, the articles nearly always go too far and suggest that there’s really only worthwhile kind of human.

I don’t honestly even believe that there’s some kind of binary among humans into these two types. We all have tendencies in both directions and it’s a spectrum. And I don’t think the introverts get all that squashed in society, though maybe because I’m in the writing and editing field my perceptions are skewed–there’s a lot of quiet types here. And that’s also why I sometimes stand out as a bit more talky than some of my colleagues. In many context, I don’t think I’d qualify as an extrovert, but in the word mines, I do. Of course, I also have friends who are much much more social than I am. As I say, a spectrum.

My extroverted feelings get hurt by those stupid articles above–I’m not callous, superficial, or inane, as they always seem to suggest. At least, I don’t think I am. So I started writing this rebuttal in fun, but I think it’s kind of true, too…

Why life is hard for extroverts too…

1) I’m often lonely. I know, I know–introverted people often feel overwhelmed by being with people and need time alone. I actually feel that way pretty often myself. But the thing about wanting to be alone is, it’s relatively easy to achieve. You can go home or take a walk or go stand in the broom closet if you have to. It’s much harder when you’re by yourself and wish you weren’t. Sometimes none of your friends are available to hang out. Sometimes your husband is sleeping and has told you to quit waking him up. Sometimes no one’s online. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

2) I get rejected a lot. One of my nicer qualities, so I’m told, is I see everyone I meet as a potential new friend. The downside of this is that many people do not want to be my friend. That’s fair, but I can’t help taking it personally. If I compliment a cashier on her nail polish or blouse and she ignores me, I feel bad even though I know intellectually that this relationship is not important to my well being. Worse, people in my actual social circle sometimes don’t really want to spend a lot of time with me. When I first moved to Toronto, I did not understand that “We should get a coffee/drinks/lunch sometime” was a phrase of general approbation, and did not actually mean anything. I was forever pulling out my date book and trying to make plans. Some of those interactions actually blossomed beautifully, but some were very very awkward. I’m always the friend who is still inviting you to parties long after you’ve given up authentic-sounding excuses and started saying things like, “I think I’m going to be really tired that night.”

3) My career path does not really suit extroversion. I write books, as I may have mentioned here, and that is a task that it’s very hard to make collaborative. I’ve tried, with writing groups, reading groups, uber-involved editors, and a husband who takes an interest in my work, but sometimes I do have to sit and my office and work and there’s no one else there… All alone! I also work on books during the day, and though there’s some more interaction to that now that I’m a project manager, I’m still just at my desk a lot of hours of the day. And yet these are the things I want to do–I wouldn’t have my career any other way! I just wish a bunch of people could come hang out at my desk with me, maybe occasionally make an interesting comment about something. I’ve actually started shunning my lovely office to work in the living room with my husband and cats. Bad use of real estate, but much more comforting.

4) It’s really easy to hurt my feelings. It’s interesting that the stereotype of an extrovert is someone who is shallow and callous and not really interested in what you have to say. Since I’m so invested in other people, doesn’t it make sense that I’m invested in what they think about me? Workplace sniping, subway grumbling, arguments with close friends–they all sting, although of course to different degrees. And I’m actually paying really close attention. I used to work with someone who took great care to thank everyone for their contributions to the project at every meeting, except me. I don’t really know why she disliked me enough that she couldn’t bear to thank me for anything, but I guess expected I wouldn’t notice. I noticed.

5) Socializing is time-consuming. Introverts can get their solo-recharge time while they scrub toilets or do their taxes, but none of my friends want to come over for that (do you?) If I want to see people at least a couple nights a week–and I do–I need to make plans, send an invitation, organize a time and place and then actually get myself there, even if it’s snowing and I’m sleepy. It’s worth doing, but it means putting off taxes and scrubbing and other things I should really get done.

Wow, what a sad sack list! I was trying to ape to woe-is-me tone in the introvert articles but now I just feel really bad about myself. But actually–I’m fine! I get to spend lots of time with people and lots of time alone, just as my personality prefers. I enjoy my own company and that of others, big parties and long walks, and blah blah blah, all that other stuff introverts supposedly are the only appreciators of.

I probably shouldn’t things I read on BuzzFeed so seriously…


February 23rd, 2015

Photos by Mark Raynes Roberts

I had the privilege of doing a photo shoot with artist Mark Raynes Roberts as part of a project he is doing, photographing Canadian authors. It will be displayed in the fall, if you’re curious to see it. I certainly am! In the meantime, here’s a selections of shots of me, courtesy of Mr. Roberts. Eventually, when I do a proper update of this site (ie., pay someone to do one) I will include one of these in the bio section, but for now all I know how to do is post them here… Feel free to let me know your favourite…I’d be curious!

I think this one is my favourite...

I think this one is my favourite…

I like the meta aspect of the photo with photos in background...

I like the meta aspect of the photo with photos in background…

Shifty eyes...somehow one of my best looks!

Shifty eyes…somehow one of my best looks!

February 19th, 2015

Current Obsessions: Curing (or at least improving) my migraines

Much as I suggested in my last post that the internet has ruined the word brave–it used to mean fighting in a war but now it just means talking about sex–so too has the word “obsess” come on hard times. My beloved Canadian Oxford defines it as “[to] preoccupy; haunt; fill the mind of a person continually” but when someone says (as it seems they say all too often these days) “I’m totally obsessed with that nail polish/salad/tv show” they do not think of their obsession constantly. Rather, they experienced it a few times, liked it, wish to experience it again. I don’t know how obsession came to mean generic positive feelings.

In this little series, I mainly mean “obsessions” in the modern, watered-down way, but with a little edge of my own neurotic tendencies. It’s not an exaggeration to say I look at my Fitbit multiple times per hour for a total of dozens of times per day. And not this week but last, I probably listened to about 10 hours of Tig Notaro recordings.

The migraine thing is less fun and more haunting–I think about it a lot because the pain factor forces me to. There was a period last fall when I started wondering if I was destined to become one of those chronically ill people, pale and sweatshirted and worried all my friends think I’m lazy because I look fine?

I’m feeling better now but even a few days of feeling that bad scared me a lot, and I’m gotten way more serious about migraine prevention and treatment. No more letting things slide, no more organic-hearted avoidance of scary pills. Into the medical-industrial complex I go!

I’ve been here before. I’ve had migraines since I was a child–my mom and borther do too, my brother’s far worse than mine. When he was a little little kid he would just sob, that’s how bad they were. We all took some fairly strong prescription painkillers during that period, and they worked quite well. Then in my early twenties I lost some weight and the prescription I was on started being too strong for me–it made me high. I got freaked out that I was taking such a serious med and I went back to plain old Tylenol.

It’s a bad medical precedent but that actually worked for about 10 years. Things started getting worst after my jaw surgery, after I went on other prescription meds, and I think honestly with age or who even knows? Migraines are very mysterious. Until the nadir (well, I hope it was the nadir) last fall.

Migraines are weird in that, unlike most medical conditions, pain is the disease itself, not the symptom. Like, if you have a crushing pain in your chest, as bad as a migraine but in a different location, that pain is a signal to you to get to a doctor immediately or that pain will likely do you permanent damage or kill you. However, with a migraine, as far as I understand it (not positive how well that is…?) there’s no real possibility of permanent damage. Once a migraine’s over, it’s over–the pain abates, and you’re as fine as you ever were. There’s no reason to seek medical treatment except because the pain is unpleasant. It’s not actually doing anything to you.

Isn’t that weird? And random? And frustrating–because if the pain isn’t because of something else, there’s nothing to fix, exactly. Migraine treatment, as far as I can tell, can only work in two ways 1) trigger avoidance and 2) pain management. Either you don’t get a migraine, or you find a way to cope with it until it goes away.

Anyway, in the past year or two, here is what I’ve done to improve the migraine situation–mainly in category one. Please note that this is not advice–migraine triggers are different for everyone and I have some extra issues with my jaw, and lack certain others (I don’t drink).

  • almost (not quite) eliminated caffeine from diet
  • almost (not quite) eliminated aspartame from diet
  • eliminated gum (except on airplanes) (all three of those can be a trigger for me)
  •  eaten protein every morning for breakfast (apparently lack of protein can be a trigger)
  • taken large doses of B2 twice a day (I admit, I forget what that actually does, but a neurologist told me to do it)
  • made an effort to improve sleep–not just amount but steadiness. My terrible habit of waking up multiple times a night for no real reason is a potential trigger. To this end, I’ve been taking big doses of magnesium citrate at bed time to help me sleep more soundly and trying to avoid naps (but I love naps!)
  • bought a new shower curtain and had the gap behind my bathtub faucet filled (apparently mildew and mould that accumulates in damp recesses in bathrooms can be a trigger)
  • made a bigger effort to take some medication at the earliest sign of headache. I was trying to tough out milder headaches, which worked for years, but recently they just got worse until it was too bad for the medication to be effective. Now I’m trying to be proactive, though I do find the sheer number of pills I’ve been taking alarming.
  • taking whatever the doctor prescribes. No more over-the-counter stuff for me, sadly. I have an “everyday” bottle of painkillers, and another one for true catastrophic headaches. I had a different catastrophy prescription, but the only time I took it I feel asleep almost immediately. The neurologist told me if I was reacting so strongly to a “baby dose” I needed something else, so now I have a new, as-yet-untried prescription. We’ll see.

And that’s it–all I’ve thought of to do so far. The neurologist I see is really smart, but I think I might be in the least worst shape of any of her patients, so she doesn’t always have a lot of time for me. Ok, never. I’ve had a good few months recently, but I’m still very nervous. Migraines are such an inexact science, and within reason I’m will to experiment to see if I can feel better. So if you have any suggestions to feed by obsession, please do comment–I would love to expand my defenses…

February 11th, 2015

Current Obsessions: Tig Notaro

I am an insatiable consumer of music–I scan the radio, quiz my friends, and buy the openers’ EPs at concerts. My tastes aren’t very cutting edge, but I do devour new music, sometimes to the point of “using it up.” It would not be unusual for me to listen to a song 40 times in a row and then, if it wasn’t really strong or complex enough to withstand such intense scrutiny, never be able to listen to it again.

On the other hand, I don’t really like listening to recorded talking–ebooks and podcasts generally seem awkward and distracting to me. The two exceptions are during long drives and while QCing a website–both are activities that root me in place while keeping most of my mind free to get involved in a story.

But my favourite thing to listen to while doing website QCs is standup comedy. You can’t actually listen to comedic sketches or other forms of tv/web comedy while doing something visual–you may think it’s about the dialogue but try listening to an episode of *Friends* with your eyes closed–doesn’t work (that’s assuming *Friends* worked for you in the first place). But standup comedians do I’d say 85% of their work with their voices–the remaining 15% in facial expressions and gestures one does miss, but I figure that’s ok. I am working, after all.

So, I listened to most of the online oeuvres of Louis CK (devastatingly insightful and interesting, with the occasional weird little Jew joke now and again just to make me feel I can’t really like him), Dylan Moran (my heartthrob from *Black Books* but far less funny when he’s not pretending to be that character. Luckily, he is usually in character for standup) and a fair bit of George Carlin (the real deal, for sure). And then I ran out of ideas, because there is no real way to be exposed to standup comedy casually–not like hearing songs on the radio or whatever. So I actually googled “standup comedy” (what?) and I got Tig Notaro.

This was about a year ago, and the first thing I listened to was a drawn-out gag involving pushing a stool across a stage. It was not my jam and I skipped on to something or other else (honestly, I think I just didn’t have to QC any sites for a while). But somehow Ms. Notaro got back on my radar and I listened to this devastating set live from the Moth called R2 Where Are You?

The series at the Moth is called Stories and Notaro is billed as a storyteller and so she is–all the really good comedians are. But she pushes it to the next level, telling brutally honest stories from her own (very) personal life, with just this fantastic little edge of humour–like the lemon in your martini. This is not the “Didja ever notice” humour-about-nothing topical style that Seinfeld popularized (full disclosure: I quite dislike Seinfeld’s kind of comedy though I respect his talent). This is humour-very-much-about-something. About life and death, a lot of the time, actually.

Normally I’ll exhaust the YouTube catalogues for a performer and then give up, but for Notaro I bought an album, Live. I’d heard a number of interviews by that point about the live set at Largo that constitutes the half hour album, and it seemed that many people found it nothing short of revelatory. I’d listened to a lot of other sets that covered some of the same material and liked them very much, but wasn’t sure I would find this album so very full of revelations. But hell, it was only 5 bucks.

I put it on my iPod and took a snowy walk to a friend’s place last week and listened all the way, grinning, eyes wet with genuine tears, plodding through the slush. This is amazing, thrilling, surprising comedy. Some of it misfires–it was the first time she’d done the set EVER and that alone makes for fresh and interesting listening as she fumbles some of the jokes into the shapes they would eventually hold onto. But it’s just so brave and honest and funny… Blogging has kind of ruined the word “brave” but it’s much harder to be brave when you’re staring into a sea of faces waiting for you to entertain them.

This album made me question some of my stupid insecurities and wonder what I could do to live my life more fully. Most comedy can’t do that. I haven’t really gone into the content of the album because I like surprises and maybe you do too–if I could go back and do it all again, I would’ve listened to “Live” first, before I knew what it was about. So maybe you should do that–it’s only $5, it’s only half an hour–listen. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

February 5th, 2015

Current Obsessions: Fitness and Fitbit

I’ve got a lot of little pet obsessions going on these days, so I thought I might get organized enough to do a little post on each one. I’ve had lots of great ideas for blog series that have gone no where lately, so no promises, but here’s the first one…

Mark got me a Fitbit Charge for Christmas, which is basically a watch with a pedometer inside. It does a few other neat things too, like track your sleep habits (it can only measure motion, but motion and poor sleep correlate pretty well) and count the calories you’ve burned in a day. Before I had this, I was using the Noom Walk app on my phone as my pedometer. That’s a pretty good pedometer app (I had other ones before that barely functioned) but it’s just hard to keep your phone on you all the time, especially when you are say running on the treadmill. And Noom wasn’t really totally accurate–the Fitbit is much sharper.

I LOVE it! I have some obsessive tendencies and I love to count things–I find it deeply satisfying to know how many steps it is from my desk to the bathroom, and how many in my daily commute and so on. I check the step counter many times throughout the day and feel like the information is really valuable.

What a Fitbit is for is to make you MORE fit, not just assess what you are currently doing. I am trying to be more fit and active this year–what an original new year’s resolution, I know–so this is a good test of its usefulness. And it does work, in certain ways. For example, the ideal active lifestyle person takes 10 000 steps in a day. When I started keep track, I discovered that I normally take that many without thinking of it, but some days I’m just under and sometimes I’m way under. It was very easy to just do the things I do on the successful days on ALL the days, and now I’m almost never below 10 000, but it took the counter to make me think of it.

I’ve also stopped “wasting” steps. Like, I live on a fairly high floor in my apartment building, but not so high that I’m incapable of walking up the steps–I just never did because who does that? Now I do, at least when I’m not carrying anything heavy. It gives me like 400 steps each way–obviously much easier on the way down, but either way. I’ve also realized that waiting for the bus or subway is a waste so I’ve started pacing. This only works on fairly empty platforms, but it is a good use of time and certainly no one cares what I’m up to. It was funny, one day I didn’t wear the fitbit and I didn’t bother to pace–what was the point if it wasn’t being recorded? It’s funny the way these things will trick the mind. And I’m just in general better about walking a little extra whenever I can.

I haven’t made any big lifestyle changes but every little bit counts, and I’m consistently between 10 000 and 15 000 every day. I would like to try for 20 000 but I think I need the weather to be a bit nicer first. David Sedaris went good and bonkers trying to up his step count, but I’m trying to be more moderate in my goals.

If you’re thinking of doing the same, some tips:

1) Shopping has a million steps–even the grocery store, but especially the mall. If you like the mall, mind you–if you hate the mall you won’t wander around and go back and forth. Strolling through anything that interests you–stores, museums, parks–has lots of steps, because you’re less likely to be linear and thus take more unnecessary steps. All to the good.

2) Running is a better workout than walking, and going uphill is a better workout than level ground, but everything counts the same on a Fitbit. A 10 000 step day is a totally average day for most of us–around 17 000 I’m pretty tired, but I could still do more if I had to. So the Fitbit encourages general healthy practices but isn’t going to make any of us track stars.

3) The flights-of-stairs function has something wrong with it–one day it said I climbed 58 flights of stairs, which no one would ever do, and other times it doesn’t count flights I know I’ve climbed. It’s amusing, but not that helpful.

4) If you are scared pacing will cause the bus driver to zoom right by you, hopping from foot to foot in place also works fine.

5) There is a HUGE difference between transit commuting and car commuting. You don’t realize how many steps even a short walk to the subway, then through the station and down all those stairs, then back up and out and to wherever you were going can be. There’s no where far enough you can park the car that will equal that–plus you can’t pace when you are stuck in traffic.

6) Similarly, there’s a big difference between transit commuting and pedestrian commuting. One day I talked my husband, a walking commuter, into wearing the Fitbit, and in getting to and from work, plus errands at lunch time and the gym in the evening, he was over 22 000 steps. There is no way I could do that without dedicating a significant chunk of my day to the project, a la Sedaris, but Mark has it built right into his schedule.

7) When I forget an item and have to go back for it, I feel less stupid now because at least the steps count.

So, Fitbit–one of my many obsessions and darn entertaining!

January 29th, 2015

Cutting, cutting

So I am editing my book now, and as you probably knew but I didn’t, it’s very stressful and challenging, and sometimes sad. I’m chopping up a story that never really worked anyway. On the one hand, I’m glad to be rid of it because there’s probably 10 versions in my folders and none really cohere properly. I’m going to be able to repurpose some of the more informational bits elsewhere (I hope!) but all the connective tissue, especially the mood- and character-building bits, are essentially being surplussed. Which issued, because some of them are good…or at least I think so. Then I remembered that is why I have a blog, to give voice to all my useless bits.

Thus, I give you the opening of the story “The First Day of School”, which no longer exists…

The walk to school is lemon-yellow and green—still summer, only now I’m wearing slacks and teaching loafers, carrying files, and up so very early. Early September is marketed in back-to-school Walmart fliers as orange leaves and sweaters, but the past few years it’s been just more heat and popsicles with the sunlight slightly slanted. I feel like this is a recent phenomenon, maybe the result of climate change, but it’s hard to remember. Back in the nineties, was there crisp air on Labour Day? Do I Instagram my memories? I’m old enough to be permanently suffused with nostalgia—the constant onslaught of bright-hued youth that is my profession doesn’t help. I miss the politically relaxed atmosphere that allowed me to at least use the term Indian summer.

The streets near campus are lifeless except for breezes and cats. There’s always a lull between the start of classes and when students feel up to attending. Even on Centre Green, where workers are trying to collapse the massive frosh-week beer tent, there’s a dreamy quiet. In a few weeks, the green will be trampled and strewn with lithe bodies, but for now it feels like I have the campus to myself.

January 13th, 2015

The End of 2014

I’ve long meant to write a post on the advantages of being a writer with a day job–I thought perhaps in December. Then December turned into one of the time that my day job mercilessly devours my life, leaving me only with scraps and fragments of both free time and the mental energy to use such free time productively. All of both went into my book and seasonal frolics–there was none leftover for the blog, or due a variety of other things. Sorry about that. But the dust is clearing and the big work project is (touch wood) drawing to a close, so…I’m back!

Despite my long silence, the end of the year was actually pretty fun for me. Many parties, visiting friends, good weather, nice presents, delicious foods. I was sad that I had to do the pre-Christmas week sans both cats and husband, as they had started their vacations earlier than mine (due to aforementioned work bomb). But with the also-aforementioned friends, I survived until I could jet off to PEI and be with Mark and family (still no cats until New Year’s Day, though).

This year, I got a grown-up menorah to replace the itty-bitty baby one I’ve had since I was 19 (the grown-up-ness undercut slightly by the fact that my parents gave it to me). I love it very much and lit the candles every night this year, sometimes taking it on the road with me to ensure appropriate dusk-hour lighting. I even brought it to PEI for the last night, so Mark didn’t miss out entirely…

I lit the candles at my inlaws on the 8th night.

I lit the candles at my inlaws on the 8th night.

On a literary (slightly) front, I guess I did do some stuff beyond my own book. I contributed a “bests” list to the Little Fiction 2014 Year in Review and item to the books of the year list that Canadian Notes and Queries did.

But actually, mainly I worked on my book. It’s been really hard, though I am happy with the new pieces I’ve produced and am now wading tentatively back into the full manuscript. But I’m nervous and all the rest, which is making it hard to envision real new years resolutions for 2015–basically, if I can complete this manuscript to my satisfaction as well as everyone else’s, I’ll be satisfied.

But I think I’ll put off the view of 2015 a little longer, and concentrate on shutting the file on 2014 in this post. Shall we go over the resolutions from last year? I’ll have the actual resolution in boldand the end-of-year update in plain text (if you want to see how I was doing at the midyear mark, it’s here. Here we go…

1. Mini M&Ms charity. This works better in summer than it does in winter–my mid-year report on this was sunnier than I am now. I’m just not out strolling as often in the winter, though I still do try to give when I see someone in need, and my mini-M&Ms canister is ever at the ready. Plan to continue this resolution.

2. Learn to play the guitar. This is a long-term thing, I guess–there’s still far more I can’t do than what I can. But it’s been an interesting process and I have learned a lot. Plan to continue this resolution.

3. Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe. Fail. But will continue this resolution because I will at some point need to move out of my apartment.

4. Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time. The mid-year report on this was very positive but then we kind of tapered off. Possibly Evan learned as much as he could, but it would be worth trying again every so often. Not continuing the resolution, but will make it an occasional thing.

5. Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. Fail. Abandoning resolution as do not actually care.

6. Something about my manuscript-in-progress. I finished it, I sold it (well, Sam sold it) and now me and the wonderous Anita are making it better. As I say above, finishing this and doing it well is the only truly important goal I have for 2015!

7. Cook lots of new recipes. This one was easy–I love cooking new stuff. I don’t think this needs to be a resolution anymore, as I’m happy to do it without prompting.

8. Blog more frequently than once a month. Not really, but I was close. I think I’ll maintain this resolution. I always enjoy blogging once I get into it.

9. Floss daily. Didn’t make it, but close. Will maintain this resolution, because the alternative is gum surgery!

10. Plan to socialize a reasonable amount every week. This one didn’t work out exactly, but on average it did. This week, for instance, i’ll be out every night but Wednesday, which is unfortunate but I really wanted to do all those things. I didn’t really go out at all last week, though, so I have the energy. I’m going to abandon this resolution, because I want to see people more than I want to keep resolutions.

And I think that’s all I have to say about 2014. Hopefully I’ll back relatively soon with something fascinating to say about the year upcoming!

December 4th, 2014

Co-habitational reading challenge: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

My husband and I have lots of literary tastes in common and we’ve read plenty of the same books, but there’s an especial pleasure of reading the same book at the same time–it’s always exciting to sit down at dinner and say, “What bit are you at? What did you think about the part where…?” and know you’re both thinking about the same stuff.

So Mark Sampson and I try to sync our reading at least once a year. In the past, we’ve done rereads of books we’ve respectively loved and wanted to experience together (here’s the tag if you want to go back in time, though the posts are weirdly out of order). This year we wanted to read something new together, and chose kind of at random from the Giller Prize 2014 shortlist (what, they all looked good).

The book we wound up with was Heather O’Neill‘s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, mainly because we both got a hold of copies around the same time. But also it was a book we both hoped to love, as we had both adored O’Neill’s first novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals a few years back.

My love of O’Neill’s writing goes back even further, to a wondrous column she used to write that no one seems to have read, in Broken Pencil, called “Goldstein on Goldstein” (I believe there was an earlier incarnation of the column written by Jonathan Goldstein, and they just never bothered changing the name when she took over). I’ve gotten so blank stares when I mentioned her good old “Goldstein on Goldstein” days that I resolved that I wouldn’t include it here unless I could find an online archive to prove I’m not crazy. And I did. And you should read’em, they are great.

To the book at hand: TGWWSN had a lot of the same everyday poetry to the language and rootedness in Montreal poverty that I loved about her column and her first book. It is narrated  from the point of view of Nouschka Tremblay. She is the daughter of a Quebecois folksinger, long loved for his quirky songs about things like an elephant with a peanut up its nose and his of-the-people style. But he did knock up a 14-year-old girl in rural Quebec and brought into being Nouschka and her twin brother Nicholas. The senior Tremblay abandoned the twins with their mother and she, in term, took them to their paternal grandparents and never came back. After the grandmother’s passing, they were raised by Etienne’s senile father, Loulou.

Whew–that’s a lot of setup. But it works, quite well, actually. It was amazing how Etienne’s localized celebrity–he is unknown to people outside Quebec and perhaps Anglos anywhere–seems completely realistic. It felt totally possibly that he actually existed, and I didn’t know it–the way people sang his songs in their wanderings and recognized him on the street, the way he go mixed up in the cause of Separatism without every really being that interested.

Lots of the press and bumpf about this novel consider the referendum a part of the events, but it isn’t really–it’s simply an ingenious way of grounding the TGWWSN concretely in time and place. It feels so specific, so exactly where it seeks to be–really brilliant on the author’s part. But this is not more a political novel than LFLC–politics might be architecture, or the weather. It is what it is.

Oh, and plot–there isn’t one for, in my estimation, more than half the book. Maybe Nouschka and Nicholas are too claustrophobically close, lost in their own twin-world, sleeping in the same bed (O’Neill very determinedly tries to make this not creepy and succeeds, barely). Maybe they need to find their mother. Maybe Nouschka needs to get a good job and get out of the fatalistic poverty in which her brother and grandfather live.

None of these are quite plot worthy, but we do gradually see the stakes rise (at the beginning of the book, with the twins noodling around their neighbourhood, the plot level felt dangerously close to nil. Nicholas becomes more self-destructive and Nouschka does her own bit on that front, by hooking up with, and then marrying (at 20!) the strange and disturbed Rafael. Things happen, the risk is real, and I got more gripped by the story in the final third. I don’t want to say I had been bored earlier–O’Neill’s gorgeous prose and my love of the quotidian kept boredom at bay, but I did wonder when something would, you know, happen.

In the last 50 or so pages EVERYTHING happens, so I guess that answered that. I ended the read a bit shell-shocked–it’s rare that a book feels both overlong and too tumultuous. But I don’t know that it was actually too anything–it simply wasn’t what I was expecting.

Even the more querulous complaints I had about the book were more questions than anything–from what point in her life was Nouschka reflecting on these events? The narrator is clearly not in the same time period as the protagonist–she keeps saying things like “I was so young” but you never find out where this narrator-Nouschka went in her life or how things turned out, or what called her to tell her story in this way. I was disappointed, but I do overthink things.

I also wondered how to think about a book written in English about characters who make a point of speaking only in French–who in fact distrust Anglos and are mystified by them. There’s many wondrous turn of phrase in this book, but they would all be completely different in another language. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, really–do you know?

And finally, the cats–they turn up every dozen or so pages, but I didn’t know why. Yes, I like cats and it makes me happy to see them in books, but there never seemed to be any point to them. Many of the cats belong to neighbours or are street cats, but Nouschka refers once to having cats of her family’s own, and then never again. No one had a relationship with any of the cats, just cutesy little descriptions that I actually really didn’t like. But again, I overthink things, especially things to do with cats.

I don’t have a letter or number grade for this book but I really enjoyed reading it and think Heather O’Neill is a wonderful writer despite the fact I didn’t like everything about this book. I also really loved reading the book with my husband (for his take on the experience, see here). It’s great to share a book in this way–a highly recommended experiment, whatever you like to read.


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