Sunday, December 27, 2009

Nothing good ever comes of it…

The big P.

Putting It Off. Postponing. Procrastination.

I loved this habit, loved it so much I elevated to the status of demi-god in my life. I tithed to the library because I Put Off walking the books back on time. I sacrificed jobs because I Put Off filling out applications. But most important, I lost chances to talk to elderly relatives and show them that I cared, because I Put Off calling or writing a letter.

I had to break that old Pattern, so when I heard about an online course called Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors, I signed up right away.

Well, you know, not right away.

Psychologist and teacher Margie Lawson offers the course every January (it starts on January 4 in 2010) and since I took it a few years ago, my Productivity has notched higher and ever higher. I waste much less time sifting through Piles of Paperwork, for example, because I simply Process the darn stuff and Put It Away. I’ve also written more than ever, Piling Up essays and novels and blogs and articles of all sorts.

And then, as happens in all the best stories, I Plowed Into a Wall. It wasn’t a big wall. It wasn’t even real. I just didn’t want to write what came next in my novel. I didn’t want to write anything else, either.

Normally I’m so busy being Productive that I can go for months without noticing dirty windows and dusty tables (thanks, Margie) but last Monday, when I Paused, I noticed that my keyboard was grubby. So I wiped fingerprints off the letters and shook out leaves and freed small animals that had been trapped in its labyrinth. There was still some dust down between the keys, though, and since I didn’t feel like schlepping to the office supply store the week before Christmas for a can o’ air, I retrieved my blowdryer from the bathroom, Plugged it in and happily released colonies of dust mites to rampage through my office.

I got even more cheerful when I realized that the screen over the air intake on the dryer was clogged with lint! How great is that! I scurried back to the bathroom to scrape it clear and the old brush I used was Perfect for the task and then, of course, I had to wash that.

The day just got better and better.

Then, since I was in the bathroom anyway, I decided I might as well have a shower, so I did and afterward I turned on that handy-dandy blowdryer to do its regular daytime job. An orange glare reflected in the mirror.

Odd, I thought, and peered into the maw of the small appliance, where a coil glowed like lava creeping toward the sea.

A highpitched hum and the smell of frying metal joined the Panoply of sensory details and I quickly Pulled the Plug.

I try to tell myself that it was coincidence, but deep inside I know that forcing the old hairdryer to deal with such an unaccustomed flood of air through its little engine is what killed it. If I’d left the lint intact, I wouldn’t have had to schlep to the shopping centre to buy a new one right before Christmas.

Which all goes to prove my point: Procrastination does not Pay.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Skirts, sails and spirits

On this shortest (and, to me, last) day of the solar year, I want to revisit some of the cool things I’ve learned lately:

The ti plant was introduced in Hawaii by the Polynesians, who were the first human settlers of the islands 2300 years ago. The starchy rhizomes can be eaten as food or medicine, or fermented and distilled into a liquor called okolehao; the leaves can be used to make clothing – including hula skirts – or roofs or to store food. The leaves have such great spiritual power that in the old days, only high priests and chiefs could wear them around their necks during certain rituals. 

And the DNA of this ti plant on Kauai exactly matches one at a famous sacred site on Moorea.

Paleolithic paintings and sculpture in deep caves, like the famous Lascaux and Chauvet caves in France, were probably intended as connections between the physical, surface, world and the deeper spiritual world.

The main mast on a schooner-rigged ship is aft, the foremast is shorter, and the sails run fore and aft rather than from side to side, although on a topsail schooner the topsail can go athwart.

Multi-tasking is counterproductive.

I love that the world is full of people who know this stuff – and share it with me!

What did you learn this year? 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gone awry

Carl Linnaeus classified organisms; Jann Arden corrals emotions into lyrics.

Ordering chaos is a very human compulsion and when we succeed (or think we do) we have an equally strong urge to share. We call it communication.

On my way to visit a friend with a broken hip recently, signs and arrows guided me through the labyrinth of hospital hallways until I came upon this notice:

For a fraction of a second I thought it was both informative and welcoming.

The problem with communication, though, is that the message doesn’t exist in solitary, meaningful splendor.

First of all there’s the sender, who composes the message and chooses a medium to transmit it. Does she use words? Are they written, spoken, or sung? On paper or YouTube?

Or does she use a picture? Is it moving or still? A painting or photograph?

All the while, the sender’s history colours how she or he composes that message.

The recipient has at least as much baggage and it affects how he or she perceives the message when it arrives.

While I stood outside Nuclear Medicine, grinning and taking the lens cap off my camera (and I realize that says a lot about me, although I'm not even going to guess what), the first person who came along was a man wearing green hospital scrubs. He spotted the camera and quickly struck a campy pose beside the sign before striding away. Then came a couple more employees who stopped politely until I smiled and waved them past, then they were gone.

The last person to notice me was a woman wearing street clothes and a staff ID tag.

“What are you taking a picture of?” she asked, turning to look.

Before I could answer, she said, “Oh, the wall.” She looked at me like I was maybe a little crazy (okay, I know what the camera told her), then walked away.

All five of us had the same visual cues, but we all got different messages. At least, I was the only one laughing.

While my companions-of-the-corridor saw a camera, a wall or a sign, this is what I noticed:

And much as I appreciate the cheery invitation, I suspect it's not what the senders intended.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It always comes back to food

As newlyweds in the Depression, my great-aunt Mary and her husband packed supplies along what is now the West Coast Trail to her new brother-in-law’s gold-mining claim, sleeping on fir and cedar boughs, wrapped in quilts.

During the Dirty Thirties, my grandfather used to load his truck with the produce of his fields and rumble around the Fraser River delta, visiting friends and relatives and dropping off sacks of vegetables at each stop.

I grew up listening to dozens of these tales as my elders reminisced over Nabob tea or Canadian Club and ginger ale. None of them were money-rich but they were loaded with stories, generosity and adventurous spirits.

Almost all of those old storytellers are gone now but we still nurture those roots, me and my cousins and their children and grandchildren. Every year (like salmon but without the imminent mortality), my family is drawn back to the delta. For a while our numbers were down, but they’ve crept back up again to seventy or eighty: there’s been a steady decade and a half of marriages and babies; people move away and others move closer; teenagers drift off for a while and reappear with new girlfriends – or without the old ones. And if we’re lucky, we hear about it over tea or rye, lasagne or ham.

Oh who am I kidding? Lasagne and ham.

I honed my all-too-tame tales and made Auntie Mary’s No-Cook Brownies as my contribution to the potluck meal this year. I do love a recipe that begins “Melt chocolate chips in cream…”

4 cups graham crumbs

1 cup half & half or light cream

1 cup chopped walnuts

½ cup icing sugar

2 cups chocolate chips

1 teaspoon vanilla

Melt chocolate chips in cream over low heat, stirring to blend. When melted, stir in vanilla. Reserve 2/3 cup of the mixture.

Mix remainder with crumbs, sugar and walnuts in a big bowl. Pat into an eight- or nine-inch square pan and frost with the reserved 2/3 cup.

Straightforward, travels well, and rich in all the right ways. Just like Auntie Mary.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

You know what they say about good intentions…

Yesterday was Saturday, November 28, Buy-Nothing Day.
I had decided to stay away from my computer, out of my car, to buy nothing.
I managed one out of three. Me! Who sometimes doesn't get in a car for a week at a time, relying instead on two feet or two pedals. Me, who is still wearing a t-shirt I bought in 1994.
By 8:13 yesterday morning, I was on the phone with my father, arranging to go to his (unpowered and unplumbed) cabin for the day – with a stop at a favourite restaurant for breakfast on the way.
Eight thirteen. Oy. 
I'm trying really hard not to feel like a failure about it, and I'm helped greatly by the success of the day in every other way. I read most of a really good (entertaining and informative and thought-provoking) book – Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Had a great time with my dad, reading him bits that made me laugh out loud while he read me bits from his newspaper. Listened to the kingfisher working the bay and the eagle trilling from its treetop perch and the rain on the cabin roof. I came home refreshed (and slightly damp).
And hell, Dad bought breakfast. 

Friday, November 27, 2009

The three syllables of happiness

“Listen to this!” my husband exclaimed recently.

My head snapped up from my book. An exclamation from him usually signals something pretty freaking spectacular, like the sun rising in the west or an early start to ski season.

“To be happy, every human being needs love, a purpose, and something to look forward to,” he quoted from the novel in his hands.

It struck us both as one of those universal truths that you recognize right away – as soon as someone else says it.

Of all the people I know, the happiest are those who have all three things. Those with only two are restless, or worse; love alone cannot create happiness.

I know people in their 80s who are happy because they have good friends, they want to finish writing their books, and they’re looking forward to Christmas dinner with their families (or at least to Christmas dinner). I know people much younger who chafe at their lives; they don’t know what they want to do, so they can neither do it nor look forward to doing it.

In the books I read and the movies I watch – and in plays and music, too, for that matter – the stories usually exist because at least one of the three elements is missing.

The movie Revolutionary Road, set in the 1950s, perfectly illustrated for me what can happen when a couple of the puzzle pieces are missing. (Spoiler alert.)

Frank had a suburban life and a job he disliked, but no clear ambition, no dream except to go to Paris some day. His wife April had the love of her husband and children but her life’s goal – to be an actress – was shattered when she discovered on stage that she’s a terrible actor.

With that dream gone, she created a new one: the family would move to Paris, she would get a job to support them, and Frank would be free to discover his purpose. However, when Frank got a better job, he decided that loving and supporting his family were, in fact, his purpose and what he looked forward to doing. April was bereft again.

Looking at life and stories this way helped clarify a few things for me. Like that hollow feeling when our chicks fly the nest and our purpose as parents changes drastically. The fear with which we face old age, when we’ll be jobless and we’ll think more about sore joints than smoking them.

Sometimes I’m a little shaky on my purpose, but I have wonderful friends and family and even on my most Eeyore-ish days I look forward to something: there will always be another fantastic story to read; popcorn makes every movie better; and my office window faces east, so each morning that I show up for work, there’s a sunrise.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Little House in the Big Woods has been one of my favourite books for more than 40 years. The author, Laura Ingalls, was the middle child in a family that lived quite a self-sufficient life in the wilderness of Wisconsin in the 19th century. They grew or hunted their food, sewed their own clothes, chopped wood, hauled water…but every Sunday they stopped. The Sabbath was a day of rest – and sometimes a day of boredom for little Laura, if I remember correctly – but the principle is interesting. Once a week, you don’t cook or clean or fix cars or whatever you usually do. Once a week, you take a break.

This year, organizers have proposed an expanded Buy-Nothing Day on November 28. Not only do they want us to refrain from shopping, they want us to abstain from any kind of consumption, including a “Ramadan-like fast.”

Uh, no.

I won’t be giving up food any time soon, even for one of the shortest days of the year, especially since I don’t understand the organizers’ goal for that particular suggestion.

However, I’ll give some of the other ideas my best shot. I’m not a big shopper, so my absence is not going to cause a blip at Wal-Mart or even my local craft fairs, but it might teach me something.

My intention next Saturday is to do no shopping (easy), stay out of the car (easy), and use no electricity (no email? That’s harder). I’ll walk, ride my bike, read near a window. Try to coerce my husband into a game of backgammon. I will use my stove (gas, though electric sparker) and if it’s cold I’ll turn on my gas fireplace (ditto).

This looks like very do-able. After all, I don’t shop much anyway and I can do without my computer for one day.

Just one day.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

I ate Kauai

On my recent expedition on the sailboat Maple Leaf, I became a foodie. Those of you who know me can stop laughing now. I mean it; I haven’t had a Dorito since.
Chef Lila Ruzicka served three meals a day (and snacks) that looked, smelled, and tasted beautiful. She made butternut squash and roasted apple soup with fruit we intrepid explorers collected in an old orchard on Portland Island. (By we I mean the captain, first mate and deckhand, not actually moi.) She served Chinook salmon and fresh-caught (again, not by me) prawns on quinoa with broccoli and spinach. And poached pears with vanilla-bean ice cream and Belgian chocolate sauce…. Every meal was a revelation, four courses of good reasons to step lively on our shore expeditions.
Then I came home to a chef-less kitchen and exhausted my cooking skills with local beets and potatoes, free-range eggs and herbes de Provence for a week before I headed to Hawaii for a family vacation.
Kauai is called the Garden Isle and it certainly is an eruption of green – sugar cane, coffee, palm trees of all descriptions, cactus gardens on the dry side, taro fields on the wet…. 
We scored a bagful of starfruit, papaya, limes, and avocado at a farmer’s market in Kapa’a on the east coast. We picked up locally baked sourdough bread and fantastic island honey in Sueoka’s market in Koloa in the south, and coffee on the plantation a little further west.
I had a slice of coconut pie in the central mountains that makes me salivate still. The pre-foodie me would have wangled an entire pie to go, and devoured it all, too. Instead, after I enjoyed my slice I put down my fork; that’s when I figured this foodie thing might be more than a flash in the pan.
Now that I’m home, though, I want to make sure. I’m on the hunt for coconut pie.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Looking forward

In the opening of her book The Curve of Time, Muriel Wylie Blanchet paraphrases John Donne and Maurice Maeterlinck as they describe time. A person can stand at the top of a curve, she wrote, and look back to the past and ahead to the future at the same time.
That’s how I feel about Remembrance Day.
During the first World War, three of my great-uncles left their farms in what is now Tsawwassen, BC, for army service in France. Their younger brother, my grandfather, delivered supplies to a prisoner-of-war camp in the Monashee Mountains. They all returned to their farms and picked up their lives – they got married, raised crops and children, and argued happily and constantly with each other for another four decades.
During World War Two, the young woman who would be my mother-in-law left her home in Detroit to work in Codes and Cyphers for the Canadian Air Force. There, she met the man she loved and bickered with for fifty years.
As I think about my relatives this week, long gone from old age and natural causes, I also focus on my friend’s daughter in Afghanistan. I look into the future, when she comes home and argues with her loved ones for a long, long time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

love them birdies

When I was a kid, I loved the book My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, so I was delighted to find a copy of a BBC film version at the library and renew my acquaintance. The boy Gerry was passionately absorbed by his interest in zoology and only mildly inconvenienced by the efforts of his mother (played by the marvelous Imelda Staunton) to keep tabs on him during their stay on Corfu, and the quirks and (loud) complaints of his sister and brothers.
As I watched the movie, the leaves were dropping from the trees outside my windows but the birds had not yet moved to greener shrubberies.
So many chickadees picked at the bark and winkled seeds from the cones in the little fir that it looked like a vibrating Christmas tree decorated with songbirds. Juncoes, a Wilson’s warbler or two and a flock of something tiny and grey-brown swarmed in and out of the black hawthorn, coming and going like a houseful of adolescents on Red Bull. A hummingbird perched on a branch amongst them like a very small Imelda Staunton.
The Durrells were overtaken by global events and had to leave their Corfu paradise, but I’m keeping the wider world out of my garden, hoping that its selection of bugs, berries and seeds will be enough to entice my flighty neighbours to hang around. At least until Christmas; the chickadees are cuter than any decorations I could dream up.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Of Ships and Foolscap

“From Imagination to the Blank Page. A difficult crossing, the waters dangerous. At first sight the distance seems small, yet what a long voyage it is…”

When I read the opening lines of Constantine Cavafy’s The Ships, I shouted “Ahoy!” with recognition.

I’m embarrassed by how thrilled I was. It’s not like I want Cavafy to founder chartless in deep troughs the way I do when I write, but since he seems to understand the feeling, I’m really glad to think I’m not alone.

“In the marketplaces of Imagination most of the best things are made of fine glass and diaphanous tiles…”

Oh, the shimmering, fragile things that glisten like bubbles in my mind’s eye before I reach, clumsy, and shatter them.

“…huge ships go by with coral decorations and ebony masts…full of treasures…”

I’ve glimpsed these gleaming in sunlight on the horizon although they don’t sail into the harbour of my mind. Alas, just as Cavafy describes, it’s just not deep enough.

Last week my notebook and I boarded a real sailing ship, Maple Leaf, for a cruise through Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Because the trip was six days, I had lots of time to see the ship in action and at rest, and I was struck by her beauty and pragmatism. She was built in 1904 of sturdy, pretty, and local Douglas fir and cedar. The big red appliqué on the mainsail identifies her. Even the perfect little mats of knotted rope are there to protect the decks from block-and-tackle beatings. They’re lovely, sure, but they have a purpose beyond decoration and that’s a destination that all writers should strive for.

Constantine Cavafy made that port. He crafted poems like Maple Leaf, of varnished mahogany and polished brass, using 800-grit sandpaper and ancient flannelette rags. Even after a hundred years, his brightwork shines above dangerous waters and on the long voyages every image in his prose poem unfurls in my mind an emotion. Fear, frustration, or hope. Sorrow when I must jettison a load of pyrite because although it glitters it is not the malleable gold I need. Delight when I find a box labeled Sheets that actually contains sails. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grow up!

Is anyone else tired of being told what to do?

When I was a kid, I used to moan about the stream of instructions my parents issued.

“When you behave like an adult,” my mom answered, “I’ll treat you like one.”

I have a mortgage, hot flashes and empty-nest syndrome; I think I’m qualified. Yet I’m constantly faced with orders from complete strangers – and lifeless ones at that.

“ENJOY LIFE,” exhorts the bench outside my library.

“Wag more; bark less,” rules the bumper sticker on the car ahead of me and okay, that one made me laugh, but still….

Who decided that the imperative was underused? That people were undercommanded? What is this, a dictatorship? Where are the language police when we need them!

My favourite bumper sticker so far: “Behind every pretty girl is a guy who’s tired of her shit.” 

My favourite song at the moment: Melissa McClelland’s A Girl Can Dream. 

And this T-shirt has been at the top of my list for fifteen years: “Fear – the thief of dreams.”

I wish someone had told me this stuff when I was a kid.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dopamine, that’s the ticket!

I’m so full of s– smugness.

I tell people that I tackle new challenges – surfing, singing, blogging – to help my writing students. Learning skills from scratch, I pontificate, keeps me in touch with their anxieties and difficulties when I demand that they try something different. Apparently complacency isn’t the only thing I’m full of.

In Managing the Middle-Aged Brain at the University of Victoria a couple of weeks ago, instructor Guy Pilch told us that learning triggers the release of dopamine in our brains. Boy, did I get excited!

After all, dopamine is also linked to sex, food and certain drugs which, I’ve heard, enhance pleasure. Life-long learning, here I come!

(Note: high-school teachers, please feel free to use this info to improve attendance in physics class.)

It’s not easy to check that I heard Mr. Pilch correctly, though. I’ve been trying to confirm my notes ever since, and articles on the Internet report things like, “The present review focuses on the hypothesis that norepinephrine and dopamine act as learning signals. Both…are broadly distributed in areas concerned with the…conjunction of sensory inputs and motor outputs. Both are released at times of novelty…” (Carolyn Harley, “Norepinephrine and Dopamine as Learning Signals” in Neural Plasticity, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, 2004).

That was the most straightforward one.

In Wikipedia’s item, I found “Dopamine is commonly associated with the pleasure system of the brain, providing feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person proactively to perform certain activities. Dopamine is released (particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex) by naturally rewarding experiences such as foodsex, drugs, and neutral stimuli that become associated with them.”

Now, I wouldn’t have thought that belting out a high A or staying upright on skis is as satisfying as, for example, a good chocolate mousse, but I’m willing to admit I was wrong.

In fact, I’m downright happy to learn I was wrong.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

No cowboy coffee here

I can’t tell you how much I learned this week.


On Monday night, I went to a talk by eminent French archaeologist Dr. Jean Clotte about the oldest paintings in the world, the 30,000-year-old art in Chauvet Cave.

I was so enchantée that I signed up for Dr. Clotte’s four-session

Introduction to World Rock Art and at six thirty Tuesday night, I slid into a lecture theatre for the first class along with dozens of anthropology undergrads and Paleontology groupies.

On Wednesday, I got a refill for my pen and arrived early for the second class.

Thursday I had to miss the symbolism of animals, humans and geometric shapes in ancient rock art to meet a friend for Managing the Middle-Aged Brain, a one-off lecture we’d signed up for, ever-so-hopefully, months ago.

Friday night I was back with Dr. Clotte for more techniques of Paleolithic artists and theories of Structuralism, Totemism and Shamanism.

Saturday I went to an all-day Romance Writers of America workshop where Lee McKenzie talked about creating characters with archetypes the way Hollywood does; agent Sally Harding described six strategies even unpublished authors can use to boost our profile with publishers; and Susan Lyons explained the pros, cons, and how-tos of critique groups.

And I can’t tell you what I learned because, like a big old Corningware percolator, it takes me a while to process and filter baskets of fresh-ground information.

As I review my notes and reflect on what I’ve heard, I’m sure I will have more to say, but for now I feel like one of Gary Larson’s characters.

A student sits in a classroom, thrusting his hand into the air to get the teacher’s attention. “May I please be excused?” he says. “My brain is full.”

The Far Side cartoon is a masterpiece, but my brain…? I’ll let you know when I figure it out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

For students everywhere

Nothing sucks the wind out of my spinnaker faster than arriving in a classroom, all excited about a new adventure, and having to listen to a teacher drone for an hour. Especially when I’m the teacher.

And yet that’s what I do. I feel obliged to set out the ground rules for those who need guidelines, establish dates for those who need timetables, describe the process for those who need the big picture.

“Assignment One yap yap yap, due blah blah blah, consequences yada yada yada.”

I’m like a film director who can’t come up with anything better than an aerial shot of the Empress Hotel, Fan Tan Alley and Butchart Gardens to establish that the movie’s set in Victoria.

In contrast, as Kinky Boots opens, a child alone in the cold tries on a woman’s shoes and dances. The rest of the film shows two men searching for their places in the world and finding their right livelihoods in high heels and lasts.

The first time or three that I watched The Big Easy, I thought the bird’s-eye view of rivers and bayous was nothing more than boring background for the opening credits. Now I know that water pours through the story, propelling it in the same way it pumps the lifeblood of Louisiana.

A flashback within a flashback opens Casino Royale, showing the beginning of James Bond’s career as a double-0 agent and portraying him as the blunt instrument that M later calls him and as an efficient killer. Through the rest of the film, of course, he proves to be both. And if you’d rather examine the wonderful graphics of the credit sequence, the artist has illustrated the same themes using, of course, playing card designs. Clubs. Guns firing fine-bladed spades that shatter a person into a spray of hearts.

These openings do so much more than establish location.

They don’t Tell, they Show.

And that’s one of the cardinal rules of writing, the one that I share with my students on the first day – after I’ve dragged them through an hour of Tedious Telling.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining,” I quote Anton Chekhov. “Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

He takes my breath away, Chekhov does, and with it fills my sails.

Now it’s up to me to use that power to create a glinting stream to open next term’s writing course. Something that embodies skill, teamwork, timing, grace, energy and of course a symbol of our West Coast setting.

I’m thinking we’ll learn a gumboot dance.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What I learned at school today

My first experience on skis, when I was twelve, didn’t go well. My little sister hasn’t liked heights since she watched me hurtle uncontrollably down the slope and then soar, screaming, over the parking lot. I developed an aversion for cold, snow, and parking lots.

A few years ago I decided it was time to put that in the past, to move on, to give the sport another try. After all, I was decades older, stronger and more coordinated, and my husband is an avid skier.

People who know better than I do tell me he’s very good. He even taught skiing for many years, so it made sense for him to take me out on the bunny slope and get me started.

What I learned had nothing to do with snowplow.

Oh, I eventually got the hang of that, and the handle-tow too (yay me!), but what I saw and overheard that day amongst all the instructors on the hill told me that, because of all their experience on skis, they had forgotten how utterly clueless beginners are.

That wake-up call prods me to try something new every year. For the sake of my journalism students, to make me a better teacher, I relive the feeling that I know nothing. I fail, then I lurch to my feet and try again and again and again.

This year my new thing is blogging. I’m happy to report that it’s a much gentler experience than skiing, easier on my tush and my self-esteem, but figuring out how to set up an account and download photos was just the beginning.

Posting a blog every week forces me to think about the things I do, to reflect on what happens to me. I feel like the raccoons that dig up mushrooms in my back yard and turn them over and over in their paws. While they’re looking for dirt and hoping for grubs I search my experiences for meaning, always hoping, of course, for a story.

Did I really just compare stories with insect larvae? Not a pretty metaphor, perhaps. But then, I’m still learning.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Somebody needs a new hobby

According to David Noer in his book Breaking Free, an astounding 60 to 75 percent of people are unable to change even when something in their world calls for it. I think Ikea must have heard from every one of those people last month when its new catalog hit desks and coffee tables.

The furor that made international news is because, get this, Ikea changed the font.

The furniture retailer switched from Futura, which it had used for 50 years, to Verdana, like I just did.

Are you enraged yet?

Me either.

I still use Ikea furniture that my mom bought me when I got my first apartment in 1980; the car pillow my sister gave my stepson in 1990 isn’t even faded. Ikea was founded in 1943 by the innovative Ingvar Kamprad and is still owned by his family. In 2008, the company had 120,000 employees and revenues of $28.8 billion USD.

I think Ikea makes mistakes like the Canadian Mint makes juleps.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

I don’t know much about art but…

You might expect me to be fond of still lifes because I love irony and still lifes are, after all, pictures of dead things.

However, I don’t like them much. Sure the bouquets of flowers are beautiful, but I can do without the shotgunned hare or pheasant flopped on the table beside them. It’s all so…messy.

And while I can admire much about abstract paintings, what I really like are pictures that tell a story. Girl with a Pearl Earring. The Gleaners.  The Running of the Goats.

And I like landscapes. I guess it’s because, even without people, they let me imagine that there is a story. Or their beauty strums an emotional chord that makes me want to be in the middle of them, canoeing through a red and gold autumn in Algonquin Park or feeling the sun beat on the back of my neck as I stroll past a field of sunflowers in the south of France.
I’ve enjoyed a lot of art this year. My dad has had three shows, along with other members of the Victoria Sketch Club, and there’s a fourth coming up this fall. He, my sister, my husband and I went the Vancouver Art Gallery and got an eyeful of Vermeers and other Dutch Masters. Last weekend a former journalism student of mine, Penny Rogers, had photographs in an exhibition along with other artists working in glass, watercolour, and acrylics.

Then last night I watched a TV show about visual storytelling. The narrator, Dr. Nigel Spivey, explained that four thousand years ago Gilgamesh knew that his people wanted a hero so he had scribes write about him performing legendary feats. Then an Assyrian king took storytelling to the next level and inserted himself in almost every scene of the action as sculptors carved images of him stoically fighting lions and vanquishing enemies. The next big leap came from the ancient Greeks, who ensured that even marble characters displayed their emotions.

Dr. Spivey went on to say that the people who really pulled it all together, storytelling-wise, were the original Australians. For tens of thousands of years, long before the Greeks and even Gilgamesh, they’ve been painting characters that everyone in their society recognizes. (Can you say archetype?) Then, in a brilliant stroke that wasn’t replicated for millennia, they set their tales to music. With percussion and didgeridoo they created a context for the story, hooked the audience’s emotions, and to this day are still sweeping them along for the whole ride.

I’m not a visual storyteller like they are, although I do strive to spin words into images in my readers’ minds. However, if I could set this blog to music, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus. Alas, I’d have to go with Nancy White’s Procrastination Rag. Writing always makes me want to clean, too.  

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mens sana in corpore sano


Sounds like some well-intentioned but cruel purgative therapy from the 1930s, doesn’t it?

Au contraire; according to my old Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary “evectics” means “acquiring good body vigor and habits.”

At last! A word that describes my lifestyle!

Since I bought that Taber’s in 1979, my first year of nursing school, I’ve acquired a lot of good habits. Or to be more accurate – and honest – I’ve lost some bad ones.

Back in those early university days I used to jog with my roommate. Well, I was “with” her like a piano tied to her leg, thanks to my pack-a-day tobacco habit. I moved on to swimming: now there’s a gentle total-body workout! My friend and I swam forty laps of the pool, chatting the whole time, and then we headed for the Student Union Building for a well-deserved cinnamon bun.

Since we were enthusiastic, ambitious young women, we had pressing questions for our professors; they assured us that studying does not, in fact, burn more calories than simply breathing. I, for one, didn’t want to believe them and fortified myself almost nightly with a bag of Doritos, alternating a handful of nacho-flavoured chips with a smoke.

Being so busy improving my body with exercise and enriching my mind with classes like Understanding Nutrition, I didn’t always have time to cook, but luckily the guys at the pizza place down the street recognized my voice on the phone. Before I finished saying, “I’d like a–“ they’d hollered “green pepper and mushroom” to the kitchen.

There were other guys, too, who didn’t supply fast food.

That has all changed.

In between not finishing my nursing studies and starting my science degree, I discovered cycling. I ride whenever and wherever I can – short jaunts in town, longer trips around British Columbia, and self-guided tours in other countries. I walk to my local gym several times a week and just as regularly do not push open the door of the doughnut shop on my way home. I resist the siren song of chips as often as I can, I smoked my last Craven A twenty years ago this month, and I am very happily down to one man (and I’m sure he’s equally happy to hear it).

So I guess in my case evectics really is a kind of purge after all, though not, I’m glad to report, in a high-colonic kind of way. 

Thank goodness I've never admitted to my chocolate jones.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who are you calling latex eggshell?

The sticky leaves cleaved to my socks as my shovel cleaved the cleaver stem from the root. After that, my chores were all downhill and my garden is as smart as paint.


English is a delightfully precise language. If the Angles, Saxons and Romans didn't have a word for something, the Normans or Germans did. If they fail us, we happily borrow from Hindi, Japanese and Salish.
So you'd think we could do better than the auto-reversible cleave. With that little gem right in the marriage service, it's no wonder the divorce rate is so high.
And then there's the charming smart as paint: Do I look fabulous or do I have the intellect of porch enamel? Or if I have to ask…uh-oh.
Perhaps I am going downhill. 
Or, as my father pointed out a few years ago, not:  

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Tea leaves

My great-aunt Mary used to read tea cups when she had visitors. Bubbles on the tea meant money so we scooped them up and drank them. If the leaves at the bottom of an empty cup looked like a chair, a friend was coming to visit. If the leaves formed a bridge, you would soon be going on a trip. 

To me, August is like reading tea leaves. Life is in the future. In August I simply continue what I’ve already begun, or I wait: for rain to soak my garden, for time to refresh my brain before I start the next draft of my novel, for school to start in September.

But waiting isn’t easy. I want to move, progress, stride into the next episode, but for some reason I never do, in August. I can start projects in July and September but not August. I have begun trips in July and September, but never August.

I would love to change that, but I can’t think of a single thing that fits the bill, that will cool the jets of restlessness that shift me from chair to window, from library to gym, from office to trail. Why can’t I do what I do all the rest of the year and just get on with it?

Because it’s August, that’s why.

Do you have a hiatus month? What do you suppose hobbles us?

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Daniel Craig and lavender: an opinion

I have officially hauled recycling to a whole new level.

Both my composters are full, so when I finished gardening on Thursday I took the weeds to the one at the municipal yard. As I heaved basketsful of dead grass and dandelions onto the room-size heap of greenery, I noticed a smell. No, a fragrance. I sniffed again. I looked down.

I was standing in front of hip-high piles of lavender.

I have always fondly imagined that when our town gardeners deadhead the lavender shrubs in our boulevards and parks, they take the clippings home and dry them, filling bowls with soothing potpourri and closets with bags of fragrant dried blossoms.

I was wrong.

It was all here on the communal compost pile, so freshly cut it hadn’t even begun to wilt.

The lavender was the third thing. You know how something piques your attention and then there are two more examples of it? Well, the chain began last weekend when I saw an article about books by Emily Cotler in the Huffington Post in which she said, “…I am not saying that popularity equates to good, quality reading. Sometimes the books that do well are not all that worthwhile.…” and I wondered what exactly did make a book – or anything else – worthwhile. I ran with the idea for a while but, just like when I jog at the gym, got exactly nowhere.

Then I had lunch with a bunch of writers.

“I loved the old Bond movies,” said one woman when we reached the cake-and-Nanaimo bar stage.

“I prefer the new ones,” I said, sipping my coffee.

“Waste of time.” She waved her fork dismissively. “None of those fabulous gadgets like the old ones had.”

“That’s what makes them better!” I cried, setting down my cup. “There’s an actual story.”  

“And that chase scene near the beginning of Casino Royale?” said someone else.

“Yes!” I jumped in, ready to extol its virtues: fast, twisty, breathtaking and a perfect illustration of the new Bond’s bulldozer personality. “Wasn’t it wonderful?”

She looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. “It was pointless,” she explained.

Others around the table agreed. They prefer the earlier 007 movies, complete with outrageous escapades, over-the-top spy tools and Bonds as slick as condoms.

Casino Royale, on the other hand, has a story arc. Bond is affected by events and every scene in the movie drives the change in him. To half a dozen of my friends, it isn’t worth watching again. To me, it is.

So on Friday evening I hit the video store, and my husband and I settled in the living room. As the rented DVD spun the fabulous red and black graphics and then the noir opening onto the screen, I happily slouched further into my favourite chair. When Daniel Craig’s gimlet gaze skewered the bad guy, I gasped and got a full-body hit of…lavender.

I have basketsful of the stuff drying in the next room.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Laying track – to where? The difference between dreams and goals

My Uncle Bill dreamed of retiring. So did my friend Sherry. They both had public-service jobs so there was a pension awaiting each of them.

Sherry worked her allotted span of years and began to collect her pension, but several years later she still clocks in regularly and it’s not because she needs the money.

Uncle Bill punched his last time card, said So Long to his colleagues, and never looked back.

The difference between them is that Sherry’s dream was retirement, which is simply a lack of employment after a certain age. She hadn’t decided what she wanted to do with her eight-hours-a-day-plus-commuting time.

Uncle Bill, on the other hand, had more than a dream. He had a goal. After lunch Monday to Friday, he headed for the golf course and played a round with three like-minded buddies.

His goal was smart: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reasonable, and Timed.

He achieved it step by step, and each step was a goal in itself. He chose a job with a pension attached. He lived in a community with year-round golfing weather. He joined a golf club.

I’m not suggesting that golf was his only goal. He got a job that paid well enough to support his wife and children. They lived in his wife’s small hometown, which was a pleasant, safe, affordable place to raise a family. He made friends who shared his pleasure in the challenge and camaraderie of the sport and they helped recreate a course after the war. All of those things supported other areas of his life, and as a bonus they made his dream of golfing five days a week reasonable and achievable.

In his new book Who Dares Wins, author and former Green Beret Bob Mayer talks a lot about goals and one of his caveats is that a goal must include a positive verb, an action that you can control, and an external, visible outcome.

In Sherry’s case, she wanted to be retired, a state of being rather than an action. No wonder it wasn’t enough for her. Uncle Bill, on the other hand, wanted to play – that’s a very active verb.

If what Sherry had wanted was simply not to go to work any more, that’s a negative and doesn’t help her. She’s still left with those eight hours a day to fill. If she wanted to read her way through the fiction stacks at the local library – now that’s a goal.

Hm. I’ll have to think about adopting that one myself. It’s the timing that I’ll have to work on: by the time I’m sixty? Eighty? Dead? And what about all the new acquisitions every year? By the time I finish ten books there’ll be ten new ones added to the hundreds or thousands I still haven’t read… Perhaps this isn’t such a great idea.

A book a week. No, a novel a week. At least one novel every week. For the rest of my life.

This goal is growing on me.

Excuse me. I have to go to the bookstore now.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Change your shoes, change your life

Stories are all about change. The books and movies we enjoy the most are those that show people becoming stronger or happier or more connected with others.

The British movie Kinky Boots, for example, has all of those elements woven together like a beautiful huarache. There are the parallel stories of two people who felt they disappointed their fathers, there’s romance, redemption and healing. Above all, there’s change: disasters that trigger personal growth that leads to business moves….

According to David Noer’s book Breaking Free, there are four basic character types when it comes to changeability in the workplace.

At the beginning of Kinky Boots, Charlie seems to be a classic Overwhelmed: when his world falls apart he is incapable of seeing any solutions, let alone implementing them.

“What can I do?” he hopelessly asks each factory worker as he lays them off, one after another.

Lauren is the only one who has an answer. 

Change your product, she snaps at him. Find a new market.

Lauren is a Learner. She’s innovative, thinks outside the shoebox, and has enough optimism to draw others along with her.

Lola is Entrenched in her life as a very successful drag queen; we can see she’s no longer happy in her rut but she isn’t even trying to climb out of it. When Charlie and Lauren present her with a chance to try something new, though, she is more than capable of shoehorning herself into the job.

These three characters show the basics of Noer’s model.

The Overwhelmed need to be given projects in which their old skills are useful, and to work with optimists whose energy can carry them along. The Entrenched are more able to adapt, so they benefit from practicing new behaviors in safe situations, especially if they’re surrounded by creative optimists. Learners are already creative, optimistic and energetic; they need to protect themselves from burnout, from being drained by others. Lauren, for example, didn’t change much in the course of Kinky Boots – she didn’t need to. The journey was Charlie’s and Lola’s – Lauren’s role was to be a catalyst and guide.

Although Charlie’s fiancée Nicola also remains the same throughout the movie, she isn’t a Learner. She is what Noer calls a BSer: comfortable with change, but not truly capable of it. She was happy to move to a new city and a different job, but she didn’t grow as a person.

“I can’t change what I want,” she told Charlie bluntly.

By the end of the film Charlie has stepped from the old sneakers of the apparently Overwhelmed into the brogues of a Learner, and Lola has climbed from her singin’and dancin’ rut to creative heights – wearing four-inch heels.

But, you say, it’s just a story.

Not entirely. Kinky Boots is based on real events and you know what they say: the difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense. 

That doesn’t make it any less true.

Friday, July 10, 2009

No ruts, please

“A change is as good as a rest.” 

That’s what my grandmother said, a woman who went from a suburban home to her husband’s farm, from a nuclear family of three brothers to an extended family of dozens of brothers- and sisters-in-law, from a short-lived gig as a nursing student to a career as farm wife and mother of five.

Did she say that because she had to, in order to make her world work? Or did she really believe it?

According to David Noer in his book Breaking Free, people fit into one of four categories when it comes to change.

The largest group is made up of people who are uncomfortable with change and are unable to alter their behaviour when the world shifts. As much as 50 to 60 percent of the workforce in some organizations fits into this group. Noer calls them the Overwhelmed because in times of transition, these people feel like they’re drowning. They’re unhappy and fearful of mistakes, avoiding real issues while they retreat to previous patterns of behaviour and hope that things will return to the good old days. They equate activity with learning and can be passive-aggressive or downright abusive, dragging others down with them.

The second-largest group is the Entrenched. These people are capable of learning new skills, but aren’t comfortable with change: they like their ruts so they keep applying their old skills in new situations. They’re more productive than the Overwhelmed, but not as productive as they’d like to be.

The BSers can be as much as 10 or 15 percent of a company’s workforce. They are comfortable with the need for change but don’t behave appropriately during transitions. They’re confident in every situation, often making quick, clear and articulate decisions, but they overestimate their own strengths and don’t see their weaknesses so the decisions can be disastrously wrong.

Learners, on the other hand, are very comfortable with external change and have a strong ability to adapt their own behaviour. They engage with real issues and grow during times of transition.

I suspect that there’s some overlap of traits in most of us. I see a bit of Overwhelmed and Entrenched in myself; there are times when the mere idea of change makes me feel like I’m floundering, and sometimes I know I can learn new tricks if I do the hard work, but I don’t wanna.

I like to think that’s normal.

However, I’m pretty sure I’m not a BSer. I am all too aware of my weaknesses.

A Learner is what I aspire to be. Comfortable with change…well, I accept its constancy. Does that count? And the more new skills I learn, the easier it is to embrace the next lot.

During busy periods – when I’m teaching and writing freelance articles and working on a novel and managing a household and taking a class and volunteering and riding my bike everywhere – sometimes I think a change might be as good as a rest. A change to life with a gardening service, perhaps. And a driver.

Even in her old age, in a comfortable chair with a glass of sherry at hand, Grandma embraced change. She switched back and forth between Hockey Night in Canada and Lawrence Welk. She showed me the importance of flexibility. 

I’m thinking of alternating The Big Easy with Firefly.

A change, as Grandma would say, is as good as a rest. But then, so is a rest.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Travellin' Plans

The bumper sticker on the back of an Odyssey minivan said, “Where are we going? And why am I in this handbasket?”

After I finished laughing I wondered, not for the first time, “What the hell is a handbasket? And why do people travel in them?”

But I came up empty. None of my three dictionaries – English, Canadian, or American – held a definition. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations and Wikipedia wove no tales of idiom origin.

What I do know is the meaning of "going to hell in a handbasket": the situation is deteriorating fast and the person in the tote has no control over it.

But since a handbasket is, as far as I can tell, simply a basket carried by hand, how fast can it be going? Why not jump out, is what I want to know. Clearly, there’s more going on in this phrase than Wiki and I understand.

So for now I’ve moved on, just like the handbasket that has evolved into a two-tonne metal tube with airbags, a six-cylinder engine, seating for seven, and a classical reference to the fallout from the Trojan war.

If Ulysses is at the wheel it might be a bumpy ride.

On the up side, it’ll be a long one.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Heart of a hero

In her short story Heart of a Peacock, Canadian artist Emily Carr wrote about a glamorous, noisy, nosy bird that played hooky from the park near her home. She first met him as he admired his plumage in the reflection cast by her studio window, but he soon drifted inside to watch her paint and after a few visits he skipped the narcissism and went straight for the companionship. The poor thing had been lonely, as the beautiful and brilliant so often are.

Eventually, though, covetous townsfolk caged the peacock, its colours dimmed and it died of a broken heart.

These days, there are half a dozen peafowl in the park along with a steady stream of visitors agog at the charming kids, waddling turkeys, and top-knotted llamas. 

The peacocks leap tall fences with a single bound and they get all the admiration they want.

The females, on the other hand, move around almost unnoticed. They visit the Muscovy ducklings, trot over to the donkey pen, and occasionally stroll right off the premises. Clearly, they love independence as much as their guys do; they’re just less…obvious about it.      

On the surface Emily Carr looked unremarkable, but inside she was smart, tough, independent and brilliant. Emily had that trait most admirable in a hero: she had the heart of a peahen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Here's to the good guys

June is the perfect month for Father’s Day. When a man is honorable and kind (or if he’s not, I suppose) his traits show up clearly during the long hours of daylight. Lucky for me, my menfolk are the sort whose sweetness and generosity I can truly celebrate.

In June eighteen years ago, in an act of quite staggering bravery, my husband married me. My dad signed the cheques for the historic venue, flower petals on the lawn, and wine for 70; I like to think he smiled while he did it.

On our anniversary ten years ago, my husband proved his devotion again when he indulged my love of cycling by buying a pair of padded shorts and riding around Ireland with me for a month. I don’t even remember asking my parents, but they stepped up to look after the house and the cat.

Four years ago, my husband cheered when I quit my day job so I could spend more time writing novels. (Okay, he grunted. I like to think of it as a cheer.) That same month, I told my father I was going to ride my two-wheeler around British Columbia alone; he ratcheted a smile onto his face and then, with a red satin ribbon, tied a little bell to my handlebars to scare away the bears.

Last week, my husband told me he hopes I’ll keep penning those books. Then he kissed me goodbye and went to work so I could.

And yesterday, my dad arrived with a punnet of strawberries from a local farm.

“It’s supposed to be Father’s Day tomorrow,” I said happily as I took the little basket, “but instead you’ve turned it into Daughter’s Day.”

He and my husband exchanged glances. “It’s always Daughter’s Day,” Dad said.
I ate the strawberries while they laughed.

Today I offer a toast to my men: Thank you for supporting me, cushioning me, and keeping me balanced.
You are the air within my tires.