Thursday, December 29, 2011

End of the Year Reading

End of the year writing has not gone so well (unless "spinning my wheels" and "wrestling with phantoms" and "second-guessing every second word") can be classified as writing that is going well), but the reading has been excellent:

1.  Marina Endicott's The Little Shadows, a skillfully plotted and finely written novel about three vaudeville sisters.

Google searches after: vaudeville etymology, Buster Keaton, the Talmadge sisters, Alexander Pantages, Tin Pan Alley.

2.  Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a collection of essays about California in the 1960s. The opening of the title piece sounds eerily current:

The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-service announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers....

Except it is "the cold late spring of 1967." Has the center not been holding for 40 years?

Google searches after: Summer of Love, the Diggers, Haight-Ashbury, hippie, STP, psychoactive drug, LSD.

3.  The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, a novel about the son and daughter of performance artists who used their children as props. Descriptions of art in fiction can be tedious, but Wilson's descriptions of the Fangs' awful pieces are utterly compelling.

Google searches after: performance art, happenings, art intervention.

4.  The History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil Macgregor: short illustrated pieces on human artifacts, from an Olduvai Gorge chopping tool to the credit card. Perfect iPad reading.

Google searches after: too many to list. Ongoing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Orange

I broke up with Christmas in 1989. It was my first year teaching in Bhutan, and I went to Kathmandu with another teacher over the winter break. On December 25 we ate rice and dahl and went to the Kumari Temple. The only tinsel in sight was around the picture of Ganesh in the hotel lobby. In the dusty courtyard, I sat across from an amber-eyed owl in a cage and drank chai and thought about my family gathering for Christmas dinner in Sault Ste. Marie. I was away from home for the first time. I was not sad in the least. I was in Nepal, under a banyan tree. I was in love with everything.

Years later in Bhutan, Christmas and I got back together. We had a tree and presents and dinner with a handful of resident Canadians and other expats.  I felt no religious connection to the holiday whatsoever, but December in Thimphu is cold -- the sun drops behind the mountains at four o’clock and night falls suddenly – and it was a lovely thing, in the dark heart of winter, in a remote, landlocked Himalayan kingdom, to search for canned cream to make homemade Bailey's, and then gather for a traditional Christmas feast.

I was reminded of my grandmother’s stories of Christmas in the 1930s. She said they always got new stockings, a book, a bag of hard candy, and an orange. As a child, I had been horrified by the last item, unable to understand the rarity of a Florida orange in Northern Ontario in the Depression. But in Bhutan, I got it.

In Thimphu turkey was out of the question, but roasted chicken and mashed potatoes were possible. Someone brought Swiss-made cheese and Red Panda beer from central Bhutan; someone else made shortbread cookies. There was French wine from the Duty Free, and oranges from Southern Bhutan. There was even (alas) fruitcake.

When I returned to Canada with my five-year-old son, we continued to celebrate Christmas, but the stores swollen with merchandise made me queasy, and Boxing Day just seemed like a clarion call for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Now, Christmas and I are amicably divorced. I look forward to the season as a time of rest at the end of term, a chance to sleep in, read and write.  I put up some lights. I buy some presents. I have dinner with whatever family member I am visiting. But I never feel much of anything for the day itself, except relief when the swelling of everything goes down, and yesterday, as I stood in the grocery store listening to a soulful rendition of “What Child Is This,” I wondered why this was. A lot of unreligious people still manage to love and look forward to Christmas. I thought about the warmth of a feast in the cold dark of winter, and the pleasure of anticipation, the longing for things you could only get once a year. I wanted to be moved by that warmth and anticipation, but I was standing amid towering tins of shortbread and overflowing bins of cheese and crates of oranges, all of which I could buy with equal ease in July.

It’s hard to have a feast in a culture of excess.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Home, Queen Street, Home

A balmy (for mid-November) Saturday with no marking; I take a trip down Queen Street East, just to see what's out there.

On the streetcar, I think of the Queen Street of my adolescence, a seedy strip of stores that no one went into, in a town that no one came to, in a section of the universe where the rules of time and space broke down. The opposite of Toronto, where everything was new and went fast and stayed cool. Toronto was, in fact, the coolest place in all the world. My father lived there. Margaret Atwood lived there. Kids who went for the weekend came back with Mohawks and parachute pants and so laden with coolness, and the knowledge of coolness, they could barely move their jaws to eat or speak.

My grandmother wouldn’t allow me to go to Toronto for the weekend. My father lived there.  Kids who went came back with Mohawks. Parachute pants were for the birds. She didn’t have an opinion on Margaret Atwood, but had I brought her up as a reason to go, most likely she would have said, “I’ll Margaret Atwood you in a minute.”

Someday I would leave and become a writer in Toronto, but until then I was trapped in the thick temporal-spatial molasses of northern Ontario uncoolness.
I began taking bus rides around the Soo for the purposes of passing time while trapped, for the purposes of observing and noting, for the purposes of pretending I was a writer until I could leave to become one. Standing inside the city bus terminal, facing a 28-minute wait for the next Second Line bus, I observed that the bus terminal smelled like stale popcorn. I noted that everyone inside looked chronically depressed or deeply enraged. I was shaken by a sudden desire to weep at the awfulness of my hometown.

It would be many years before I understood it wasn’t the town that was the problem. It was the other part of the word.  It would be many years before I understood the word projection.
Toronto is not my hometown. I don’t know who Ashbridges Bay was named after, or what went on at Fort York, or where to get the city’s best anything. I still know absolutely nothing about coolness. But Toronto is where I live and work and where I have raised my son. It is the place I came to after I left Bhutan, thinking I would never be happy again.

Toronto is where I am happy again.
And therefore, I think, it would behoove me to know it better. Hence this trip to the Beaches. (Yes, I know: it’s singular. They had a referendum. But I’m passing signs: Historic Woodbine Beach, Historic Scarborough Beach, Kew-Balmy Beach.  Walking the boardwalk, it’s going to seem like one beach, but historically, numerically, signage-wise, it’s plural. (The Beach is large; it contains multitudes?)

I get off the streetcar at the Intergalactic Headquarters of Art Deco Superheroes. Even clad in scaffolding, the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant soars, a vaulted, streamlined temple of water purification (and also of coolness).   
The wind is loud and strong, and the lake thinks it’s an ocean here, swelling wildly and crashing over rocks. Dogs gallop across the sand. I envy the occupants of the waterfront homes, maybe not in the sweltering summer when this place must be overrun and noisy, but now, when they can stand at their windows and see nothing but a lake that thinks it’s an ocean.

I walk the boardwalk in the surging wind right to the end. The sun is swaddled in cold cloud. I don’t know what owns this collection of smoke stacks beyond the parking lot. I don’t know if that glimmer of white to the east is the Scarborough Bluffs. I will google everything when I get home.
The westbound streetcar is stopped by Occupy protestors. We get off and walk to the subway behind a large group of mostly young people carrying signs: Evict the 1%. A young woman with a megaphone calls out, “Show me what democracy looks like!” The group answers: “This is what democracy looks like.” A drummer keeps the beat.

A disgruntled pedestrian yells, “Go home.”

“I am home,” a protestor yells back.

Me too.

Friday, November 18, 2011

K Period and Other Rules

This morning my students informed me that a period in a text message indicates anger. "Like your friend texts you about something and you just write back one word with a period," they said. "You sound pissed."

How about one word without the period? Not angry, just in a hurry.

Also, "OK" sounds like you're angry but "okay" does not. Worst of all is "K." "K." is the equivalent of "Yeah, yeah, I'm busy. Stop bothering me."

I want a list of these rules. Not because I want to use them when texting (all my texting is done with people like me -- so old we text in complete sentences, properly punctuated, with caps) but because it's like watching a new language being born.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Reading: The Visible Man and Bacon Marmalade

The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman: I got this book at the library the same day I felt compelled to get a jar of President's Choice bacon marmalade at Loblaws. Both weird, both delicious.

I read Klosterman's collection of essays, Drugs, Sex and Cocoa Puffs, just for the title, and I really liked his first novel, Downtown Owl. The Visible Man is like putting those two books in a blender and adding bacon marmalade. And some hitherto uncatalogued strain of medicinal marijuana. The result is a very funny, very strange, very thoughtful, intensely interesting piece of fiction about a man who invents an invisibility suit (and cream!) and seeks therapy to talk about the lives he has interfered with while invisible. Interfered with like how? Invisible man: "There's nothing like watching a nervous man load a gun." How does the therapy proceed? As the therapist says, "No therapist on earth was trained to help a criminal scientist with the power of invisibility."

I slowed my reading because I didn't want the book to end. But it did end, and now I feel compelled to read it all over again. It's better than bacon marmalade, because honestly, you can only eat about a teaspoon of that stuff at a time. While you're eating, you're thinking, "This is good. But it's so wrong." Reading The Visible Man, I kept thinking, "This is wrong. But it's so good."

Recommended reading:
Klosterman, Chuck. The Visible Man. New York: Scribner, 2011. Print.
Pair it with Chipotle flatbread, cream cheese and President's Choice Black Label bacon marmalade.
So weird, so delicious.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Zeppa Family Feud Form

The Official Fuck You / Fuck You Too Zeppa Family Feud Form®

In an effort to save time, clarify family history, and ensure proper storage of records for future generations, you are asked to complete the following form and deliver it to the relevant family member.1  

Please print legibly in black ink or blood.

To ensure accuracy of records, please indicate whether this situation qualifies as:
o  An initiating Fuck You
o  A respondent Fuck You Too

1.       I,    ________________________, do hereby declare that I am :

o  Mildly annoyed
o  Moderately mad
o  Highly pissed off
o  Too drunk to remember

at : ___________________________________
            (write primary Fuckee’s name here)

and: __________________________________
        (list all secondary Fuckees. Attach additional paper if necessary.)

2.      My annoyance / state of high piss-off arose from the following (select all that apply):

o  Promises were not kept
o  Dishes were not washed
o  Worst parent / child ever!
o  Shenanigans surrounding family will / disinheritance
o  Low blood sugar / hangover
o  You lied to me / owe me money / didn’t call
o  I have my reasons
o  Other: _________________________________

3.      This feud officially began:

o  Just now
o  Within the last week
o  Within the last year
o  Monday, May 21, 1978, at 5:35 p.m.
o  You know damn well when it began

4.      I plan not to speak to you for the following period of time:

o  One to two weeks
o  One to two years
o  More than two years but less than ten
o  Until hell freezes over

5.      In light of the aforementioned, you are hereby advised to come and pick up your:

o  Worldly belongings
o  Children
o  Box of unidentified crap in the basement
o  Parole Board of Canada Official Notice of Pardon
o  Other: _________________________________________

6.      Failure to pick up the above-mentioned items will result / has already resulted in a:

o  Garage sale
o  Bonfire

7.      The following action, while in no way lessening your grievous offence or making things right between us, might result in a revocation of this form:

o  An apology
o  Money (Amount: ___________ Preferred Currency: _______________)
o  You admit that you are totally and utterly in the wrong and/or an asshole
o  Fuck you. Nothing would result in a revocation of this form.

8.      In the unlikely event that I find myself no longer pissed off at you, I reserve the right to transfer this feud to the following beneficiary2:


Thank you for filling out this form. One copy will be retained for our files3. In the unlikely event that your feud ends early, please contact management so that we may update our records.  

1 Use of this form is free for Zeppa family members only. For usage with non-Zeppa recipients, service fees will apply.

2 Please note that if you selected “until hell freezes over” for question 4 and intend to transfer this feud to a beneficiary who is a direct descendant of the original Fuckee, you must complete a separate Fuck You and Your Progeny Form.

All submissions will be held in strict confidentiality by one James Raymond Patrick (Blab) Zeppa. Submissions can be (and have been) used against you in a court of law.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Why I Love Teaching. One of the Reasons.

Difficult, beautiful, thoughtful questions and observations about Buddhism from my mythology students. "Is the desire for enlightenment a desire of the body or the mind?" (This in response to my claim that consciousness is a product of the body.) "Isn't the desire for enlightenment also a desire?" (Luckily I have an answer to that.) And an answer to my question about why the body should be made to suffer in order for the mind to find enlightenment: "We make the body suffer so that the soul will remember, because as soon as physical suffering is over, the body forgets."

As Tobias Wolff wrote in This Boy's Life, teaching makes you accountable for your thoughts.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Marking Midterms vs. Writing a Novel

I'm in the middle of Study Week. This means I can stay home and mark, and stay home and work on my novel about the bootlegger. Here's my comparison of these two activities, based on the last four days:

Marking                                                    Writing a Novel

- Comes with some multiple choice                - Long written answers only

- Mostly know what I am looking for               - Don't know what I'm looking for until I find it.
                                                                        (Even then....)

- Rubrics                                                       - Coffee

- Second-guessing? Quite a lot                        - Second-guessing? Don't make me laugh

- Inspires desire to procrastinate                    - Inspires desire to procrastinate

- Can be used as a procrastination                 - Never used as a procrastination tool
   tool to ward off writing                                  to ward off anything. Except maybe death.
                                                                       (And even that...)

- Grueling                                                     - Grueling

- Exhausted when finished                             - Energized when finished

- Feels like it takes forever                            - Takes forever

- I have to do it                                             - I don't know why I have to do it

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Marking Blog

9:35 a.m. Well, it's raining. That helps. Today's allotment: 21 midterms, 25 reflections.

Pre-marking ritual: make coffee, put on marking boots (beautiful John Fluevogs that trigger an old injury if I walk too far in them, now only good for sitting in, hence "marking boots"), turn on classical music, arrange flowers on desk, apply lip gloss (a technique I learned from writing the novel: pretend it's a date). Sit in rickety chair. Begin.

10:30 a.m. 10 midterms done. Lowest mark: 20%. Think about the ethics of saying to this student, "You don't have the language skills yet to take this course. Whoever promoted you did you no favours." Think about the ethics of NOT saying this. Heave sigh, go back to midterms.

10:35. Mark one midterm. Stop, get out tool box, fix chair. Wish for Allen key that fixes language problems. Better yet: wish for that chair in The Matrix so we could just upload grammar through a port in the back of the head.

11:24. 11 midterms done. Highest mark: 96%. Time for a snack.

11:39. Count the reflections. Still 25. Change music to swing. Change pens.

1:02. The reflections are actually essays, but I try not to call them that because the word essay elicits waves of despair and protest from my students, followed by the inevitable question about the number of paragraphs required, which elicits a wave of despair in me. The five-paragraph form has been beaten into their heads so thoroughly that they can't think around it. Instead of an engaging in an essai, an attempt to figure something out, they've been taught to manufacture three points, whatever the question, cram them into a thesis, insert them into three body paragraphs, and repeat them in a conclusion.

1:05. Google how to write a five paragraph essay: 1,150,000 results. But what's wrong with the five paragraph essay gets 941,000 results. Hope is a thing with feathers! (16,700,000 results).

1:15. 15 reflections left. Change of locale required. Pack papers, pen. Apply more lip gloss. Aroma Espresso Bar, here I come.

3:20. Effects of coffee and espresso brownie not strong enough to counteract marking lethargy. Four reflections left. Fighting off sleep. Must. Keep. Marking.

4:40. Put down pen. Pour glass of wine. Open The Marriage Plot. Breathe.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Flock of Hawks

Walking home this afternoon, just before the rain lets loose, I stop to watch nine or ten hawks wheeling and circling far above the treetops. What is the term for a flock of hawks? Do hawks even travel in flocks? Note to self: look this up. Also: why do flocks of birds seem so ominous? (Hitchcock aside.)

Research Results

According to the internet, hawks do travel in flocks. A flock of hawks is a cast or a kettle or an aerie.

However, (also according to the internet), what I saw was probably a flock of turkey vultures. A flock of turkey vultures on the ground is called a venue. In the air, it's a kettle. (If you want to know how to get rid of OR attract vultures, the Turkey Vulture Society webpage has answers for you.)

Also: a bunch of emus is called a mob. Obviously, I did not see a mob of emus on the way home.

On why flocks of birds seem so ominous, Google's first return (of 128,000) was a quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: "in the air, flocks of birds had been circling, black against the pale sky." Not an answer to my question, but yeah, exactly.

Everything is more compelling when I have 150 midterms and essays to mark.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dopamine, Serotonin and Gilgamesh

Spent the whole of spin class this morning thinking about addiction and Gilgamesh. I just finished Marc Lewis’s gripping Memoir of an Addicted Brain, which goes beyond the usual downward-spiral story to include the latest findings from neuroscience.  Dr. Lewis is a developmental neuroscientist and professor of psychology, and his descriptions of how various substances affect the brain at the level of the neuron are very helpful in explaining why addicts continue to do that one thing that fucks them up and fucks them over, over and over.

Lewis shows how drugs “talk to the brain in its own language” – the language of chemicals.  What struck me as most tragic is the extreme limiting that happens in the brain as more and more neurons are recruited to focus on the one substance charged with providing pleasure, warmth, comfort, satisfaction and meaning.

Lewis writes, “That’s what’s so insidious, so toxic, about addiction. The neural traffic routes get more and more constrained, thanks to the sculpting -- the shaping and pruning – of synapses.... There are fewer routes to take with each replay of the fundamental story line.”

He points out that what happens in the brain then happens in the mind. “The brain doesn’t really parallel the mind,” he writes. “That would be a misnomer, a poetic approximation. It’s the other way around: the mind parallels the brain. The way the brain works – the biological laws of synaptic sculpting and neurochemical enhancement, each reinforcing the other – are what constrict the addict’s mind, his behaviour, his hopes, his dreams.”

So other possible pleasures become hollow, meaningless. All the other things that cause the neurotransmitters of motivation, comfort and joy to be released in a non-addicted brain, all the other things that create meaning and sparkle and connection in daily life, are gutted, drained, rendered inert.

A job well done. A friend well met. Finishing spin class without falling off the bike. A croissant. All the ordinary, unremarkable, untranslatable pleasures of daily life. All useless to the addict’s brain.   

In my myth class, we’re reading Stephen Mitchell’s excellent version of Gilgamesh. In his intense grief over the death of his dearest friend, Gilgamesh embarks on a desperate quest to find eternal life. He meets a tavern-keeper, Shiduri, who tells him his quest will fail and he will die, but she also tells him how to live:

Humans are born, they live, then they die,
that is the order that the gods have decreed.
But until the end comes, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

Gilgamesh cannot hear the wisdom in her words because, like an addict, he is fixated on one (futile) thing. And in truth, the wisdom isn't in the saying or hearing of the words; it can only be felt in the living of them. 

I believe in the intelligence of evolution (not to be confused with Intelligent Design), in the three-billion-year wisdom of the cell, in all its crazy dazzling proliferations, its million billion trillion developments and orchestrations, and in its in-built limits, including senescence. Addiction, it seems, wrecks a life because it abuses the wisdom of the cell, stripping all the thousand potential connections and joys out of daily living, and reducing the possibility of pleasure to one thing that, really, no long provides any.

Works Cited (and highly recommended!)
Lewis, Marc. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain: A Neuroscientist Examines His Former Life on Drugs. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2011. Amazon. Web. 4 Oct. 2011

Mitchell, Stephen. Gilgamesh: A New English Version. New York: Free Press, 2004: 168-169. Print.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cottage Reading

(Hello, neglected blog.)

Going to someone else’s family cottage in Ontario is like a trip in a time machine. I always see things from my own long-lost family cottage: rust-coloured coffee mugs and hideous floral plates, CorningWare, Reader’s Digest Condensed books in maroon leather-look covers, and the 1942 Simon & Shuster edition of War and Peace. I’ve seen that faded red cover next to so many cans of Off that I’ve come to think of it as the Cottage Edition.

From the time I graduated from Trixie Beldon mysteries until I went to university, I would finish my stack of library books at our cottage (“camp,” we call it there) and then turn to my favourite condensed books:

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. This novel gave me nightmares for years: rambling houses high up in the hills, with a sinister yellow light in the tower window, would send out an inexorable, implacable evil that always found me. It was what Jackson didn’t tell us that frightened me most (I was particularly creeped out by Hugh Crane’s decision to make every angle in the house just slightly off).  I also loved Jackson’s sparse style. The opening paragraph still haunts me: “and whatever walked there, walked alone.”  Words learned: ectoplasm, yardarm, katydids.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden. I loved the fiercely determined Lovejoy Mason, abandoned by her glamorous mother, living with a struggling chef and his worried wife in post-war London. Godden’s novel has such strong characters and vivid details that I can still see Lovejoy asleep on the stairs (while her mother entertains a gentleman caller in the bedroom), and the crimson plate the chef served strawberries on, and the flowers that Lovejoy made grow in her Italian garden in the ruins. Words learned: coloratura, alyssum, Angelica Kauffman.

Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald. I read this book so often that lines of it are still permanently burned into my mind. I loved it because it was funny, but also because I too wanted to live on a rain-soaked island in Puget Sound and burn creosote logs on the beach and take the ferry home.  Words learned: geoduck, seawall, Monte Cristo sandwiches.

The first two novels sit (in uncondensed form) on my shelf. On the last weekend of summer, I am tempted by them again.
I never did read War and Peace.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Annotated List etc, Part the Last

A suitcase of old journals. Old as in disintegrating. From university and high school. Written on lined paper in Duo-Tangs. I read  from them randomly. It's excruciating, fascinating, and tedious.

Here are some notes from 1986:

  • I will remember this day always. (I have no memory of that day whatsover. )
  • To prevent letters from being steamed open: seal with egg whites. (Who did I think was steaming open my letters?)
  • Literary theory is really out of control. (After being made to read Of Grammatology.)
  • I don't really have any great goals, except to be happy and to be good. (Still applicable.)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Annotated List of Things Found While Packing, Part 3

1.  Amount of royalties earned in 2005 (according to uncashed cheque) from the Finnish version of Beyond the Sky and the Earth:  $7.68

2. Amount of money collected from the linings of old purses, the top of the dryer, and the loose change bowl. $38.48

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Annotated List of Things Found While Packing, Part 2

Copyright registration card from the Library of Congress. 
  • My grandfather, who left school at 13 to work at the tar plant to support his eight siblings and then worked shift work at the steel plant until he retired, who taught himself basic electronics and economics from books but refused to read fiction on the grounds that it was “all made up,” who did not watch feature films (“foolishness”) or go to restaurants (“waste of money”) or travel for pleasure (“for the birds”), whose idea of a day off was to plant carrots, fix the lawn-mower and then take down the storm windows, took the trouble in 1935 to write to the Library of Congress to copyright a song he had written with a friend. He played the French horn, but according to the card, he wrote the lyrics to “Dove of Love.” He would have been 18. 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Annotated List of Things Found While Packing, Part 1

1.  A list of books I read in 1997 (the last full year I lived in Bhutan).
  • List includes She’s Come Undone, The God of Small Things, and Angela’s Ashes.  
  • Question: How did I manage to get my hands on these and 72 other books in Thimphu, where the fiction section of the town’s main bookstore featured two volumes of Sherlock Holmes, The Red Badge of Courage, and the collected works of Ayn Rand?

2. A drawing of a picture of the Fourth King of Bhutan.
  • Medium: brown and orange crayon on thick paper.
  • Description: HM’s framed portrait sits on a carved wooden table.
  • Artist: Dorje (but he spelled his name Dojer).

3. My son’s long-form birth certificate.
  • “See explanation for last name in attached letter.” There is no attached letter, but I had to write one, explaining why the child did not have his mother's last name (Zeppa), his father’s last name (Dendup), or a combination thereof. 
  • Explanation: there are commonly no surnames in Bhutan. Also, child's father felt that Pema Dorji (meaning "Lotus Thunderbolt") would not really be improved with the addition of Zeppa (meaning "beet root"). Child's mother had to agree.

4. An insane number of suitcase locks without keys and combination locks for which I no longer remember the combination.
  • I hate moving. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Secretary's Desk Book

from The Secretary's Desk Book, 1935:

#27. The Evil One.
The names of the Evil One should begin with capitals. Satan. Satanic Majesty. The Devil. The Adversary.

I'm trying to imagine how many secretaries in 1935 had the opportunity to actually implement this rule.

To: The Adversary, Hell. From: Harvey's Menswear, Toronto. May 13, 1935
Dear The Devil,
It has come to our attention that your account is now thirty days past due. Please send cheque or money order. Thank you.
Very Truly Yours, etc.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Anxiety (aka Unnamed Devil Disorder)

At a recent reading hosted by The Bookshelf in Guelph, I was asked about the unspecified mental illness in Every Time We Say Goodbye. The characters in my novel cannot name their illnesses. Unnamed, an illness can be anything; unspoken, it often becomes the worst thing possible.
For example.  
When I was 18, I went on a religious retreat with forty other high school students and met the devil. For six months after, I was unable to sleep except in brief snatches; during the day I was shaken by strange surges, haunted by evil grinning thoughts, and clamped in an iron vice of dread.
The retreat was held in an office building. We went in on a Friday afternoon to find all the windows and clocks covered, and were immediately asked to surrender our watches. “Don’t anticipate,” we were told. “Participate.” Soon, we weren’t sure if it was day or night. (Later I would learn that this, along with sleep deprivation and hunger, is a common technique in cult programming. The body becomes disoriented and the mind follows.)
At some point during our clockless retreat, we were told to lie on mats in a dark room and empty our minds. I did, and into my emptied mind came an unspeakable dread. It was more terrifying than anything I’d ever felt, so I gave it the name of the worst thing I knew. I fixed my eyes on the low-lit crucifix on the wall and recited silent Hail Marys. Eventually, the devil retreated, but I was deeply shaken. If I wasn’t safe surrounded by crucifixes in the Catholic Information Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, I wasn’t safe anywhere.
The retreat ended, and I went home. I was in bed the next time the devil appeared, rippling out of the radio (probably on a Jimmy Page riff). I leaped out of bed, turned off the radio, and prayed like mad. Around four in the morning, I fell asleep. Two hours later, I got up for school.
This became a nightly pattern: terror and dread in sweat-soaked sheets, followed by fragmented sleep. Strangest of all, I told no one. I was afraid that if I told my grandparents, they would take me to a priest, thus confirming my deepest fears. And there was just no way to drop it into a conversation at school (oh yeah, and guess what else? Satan is trying to possess me, so if my head starts turning around, like 360 degrees, that's what's up with that).
One night, I woke up with tremors running through my hands and arms. Was I dying? I stumbled to my grandparents’ room. “Grandma,” I said. “My hands are shaking.”
She said, “It’s nerves.”
Nerves. Huh. Not a supernatural evil trying to get in, but a terrible pain trying to get out. The shaking subsided, and I went back to bed.
A few months later, in university, a description of an anxiety attack in my psych textbook confirmed my grandmother’s diagnosis.
Still, it took a long time to get help, partly because I'd learned as a child that the adults who were supposed to be caring for me were so caught up in their own traumas, they couldn’t be relied on. Also, I didn’t know where to get help, and it would be years before you could Google “heart racing” and “feel like I’m dying” and be led to an anxiety disorder website. But mostly, I thought I could banish my affliction by ignoring it. It took a long time to learn we only cure our ailments by calling them out.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Five Times a Day

In her beautiful memoir, Married to Bhutan, which I read yesterday in virtually one sitting, Linda Leaming mentions a Buddhist practice in which a person thinks about death five times a day. This made me wonder: Why five? Is that a lot? What kind of day do you have if you wake up and tell yourself, Today I’m going to think about death five times?
I decide to try it.
Thought # 1 (leaving for the gym): What if this is the last time I leave the house? People will say, “She was just on her way to the gym. She never even saw it coming.” (Ha! Little would they know....)
Thought # 2 (in spin class, pedalling as hard as I can): The instructor tells us to pedal harder, and in my mind, I pound the bike and say, “I’m dyin’ here.”  Does that count?
Thought # 3 (walking home from the grocery store in the rain, noticing tightly furled buds): I wish I could slow spring down.  “A peach blossom is beautiful...because it is temporary,” says the monk at the end of the Bhutanese film Travellers and Magicians. Yes, yes, I know! But if only it could be temporary a little longer.
Thought # 4 (staring at an empty Word document): Death is the blank page on which life writes.
Thought #5 (remembering Rome): It's so weird that my very Catholic mother doesn't believe in an afterlife.  We were standing in front of an Inferno-esque fresco when she mentioned, oh so casually, that she did not believe in heaven or hell. I was shocked. Can you be a Catholic and not believe in life after death? Isn’t the afterlife kind of the whole point? Also, if she didn’t believe in an afterlife, why was she dragging me into every church in the city? I asked what she thought awaited us after death. She said, “Nothing. I believe we live on through our genes, in our children.” I said, “Then can we go back to that restaurant near the place we bought the leather sandals?”
Thought # 6 (leaving to do a reading in Hamilton): What if this is the last time I leave the house?  OK, when you start to repeat yourself, it’s time to stop. Plus, I’ve done the required five.
Thought #7 (driving past a cemetery. A very big cemetery): “I had not thought death had undone so many.” Enough with the death thoughts already!
Thought #8 (on the way home from the reading): I talk with author Cynthia Holz about Buddhism, end of life care, the end of a life, the moment of death. Rain falls in the streets of the dark city. I am so absorbed in my life at the moment, I forget I am supposed to be thinking about death, even though we have been talking about it the whole way home.   

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Cosmogony, for Writers and Word Nerds

Just read this in Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty.
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

-- Kenneth Koch, "Permanently"

Saturday, April 9, 2011


The publication of Every Time We Say Goodbye has not been easy for my parents, given that I borrowed (stole) parts of their histories and reshaped (hammered and chipped, chopped and screwed) them to fit into a novel. In my anxiety over how they might feel after reading my book, I wrote imaginary blurbs from both of them:
“Well, it’s a very nice book, but I don’t know why she couldn’t write about vampires. They're very popular. And she’d make more money too!” – The Author’s Mother
“I swear I didn’t know the car was stolen.” The Author’s Father
My parents split up when I was two. I’m now 46 and can only remember seeing them in the same room on a handful of occasions (funeral, graduation, my first book launch). Even when they are in the same room, they don’t really talk (for personal reasons which cannot be explored in this public forum, and besides I already wrote a novel about it).
So estranged are they that it was a shock for my son to realize their connection. “Wait a minute,” he said when he was about six. “Grandma Judy and Grandpa Jimmy used to be...married?”
And so I was delighted when they seemed to enter into a playful rivalry over book sales at two readings in their respective cities.
In the Soo, my mother mailed out postcards of the book cover, called friends, family, and absolute strangers, and liaised with staff at the public library, where the reading was being held.
In Toronto, my father emailed invitations, called friends, printed up postcards of the book cover, and worked with staff at Ben McNally’s bookstore, where the event was being held.
At the Soo reading, the room was packed; the novel sold out and the booksellers had to resort to selling copies of my Bhutan memoir.  In Toronto, the room was packed, and people bought both the novel and the memoir. At the end of the evening, my father tallied up the numbers: he was up by one book. But when I conveyed this fact to my mother, she said I’d miscounted. "Congratulate your father on his success," she said, "but I won by ten books." 
No, it's not time to cue the Reconciliation Score, but in my family, that counts as conversation.
At least they'll have something to talk about at the next launch.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Keep Talking!

Today a very irritating review of my novel claimed that I believe all children should be raised by their biological parents.
Considering that I was raised by two people who were in no way biologically related to me, I can say I wholeheartedly believe no such thing.
Here's what I do believe: children long for their parents, and in their absence, create fantasies of belonging and identity and perfect love. It’s the same kind of longing that happens when the person you're in love with suddenly dumps you. You're sure there has been some mistake. You hope against all odds and fervent declarations to the contrary that the person will come back and want you and love you again. But your longing doesn't mean the relationship was working or right or good for you. In the same way, a child's longing for her biological parents doesn't mean those parents should be or could be raising her.
One of my characters is adopted. His adoptive parents clearly love him and are very good caregivers. What derails him is not the fact of his adoption, but how this fact has been hidden from him, and how, when he finds out at age 14, his adoptive parents are utterly unable to discuss the matter with him. This part of the novel is set in the 1950s, when adoption was a matter of secrecy. It was a matter of shame for the mother who had “got into trouble,” and a matter of dark speculation for gossipy neighbours who nodded knowingly at each other and muttered about what was bred in the bone.  My character senses this, and in the silence, he imagines the worst. He doesn’t turn out the way he does simply because he was raised by two people who have no genetic connection to him.
The parents in my novel lack balance: the ones who effortlessly pour out their love and physical affection are poor providers, while the competent providers can’t say “I love you and I'm glad I have you.”  Some parents are unreliable and missing in action; others are overly rigid and all-too-present. If only they could be blended into one perfect parent! Or, more realistically,  since they're all part of the same family, if only they would stay in touch and keep talking, they could make up for each other's shortcomings.
Every Time We Say Goodbye is not about how all biological parents should raise their own children, but how the deep imperfections and imbalances in families can be overcome if everyone stays connected and keeps talking.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Should Writers Read Reviews of their Work?

At a reading in early March, Timothy Taylor (The Blue Light Project) was telling me about Mavis Gallant’s practice of never reading reviews of her own work. Her argument, it seems, was that if you are going to put stock in reviews and allow yourself to be elated by the positive ones, you have to also take to heart the negative ones. The thing to do is not read any.
Easier said than done, especially in the Google Age.  
But negative and positive aren't the same as good and bad. Bad: the Foamy Piece (works itself into a lather of praise without really considering the text). Also bad: the Review Formerly Known as Plot Summary. Good: the judicious, thoughtful, well-written critique, whether or not you agree with it.
Still, it’s not easy to read a negative review of your work. What if it clobbers you over the head? Knocks the pen out of your hand and pokes you in the eye with it? It's hard to write with a pen in your eye.

An editor suggested reading only reviews selected by my publicist, but added, glumly, that some helpful friend or family member would be sure to draw my attention to any negative review I missed.  Another friend suggested reading every review and posting them all to Facebook.
I came home thinking about praise and criticism and the Buddhist practice of equanimity. What good does Buddhist practice do if you don’t actually...practice it? So I decided to ride the waves: read all reviews and attempt equanimity.
 Last week, a mixed review of Every Time We Say Goodbye appeared in the National Post: .

Following my "Ride the Waves" policy, I immediately posted it on Facebook. Within three minutes, a colleague began to read the negative lines out loud to me.  When I said the review was very well-written and balanced (i.e. the reviewer had also praised the book), my helpful colleague informed me of a study showing how, when bad news is sugar-coated with good news, people miss the bad news. 
It was a good moment to practice equanimity.  And I'm sure there are plenty more opportunities ahead. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

20 Questions by Knopf Canada, 20 Answers by Me

20 Writerly Questions ( from )

1. How would you summarize your new book in one sentence?
Members of the Turner family in Sault Ste. Marie manage to connect to each other through three generations of secrets, silences and disappearing acts.

2. How long did it take you to write this book?

It was written in fits and starts (more fits than starts) over eight years.

3. How did you choose your characters’ names?

I googled popular names by decade, looking for ones that sounded like my characters. In the beginning, everyone’s name started with a D, which made all my early readers crazy.

4. How many drafts did you go through?

I completely rewrote two sections at least twice, but because all writing feels like rewriting to me, I don’t have a clear sense of distinct drafts, just countless changes.

5. Who was the first person to read your manuscript?

My dearest friend Susan Terrill.

6. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?

The entire cast of Mad Men. (I’d write extra parts for them!)

7. What’s your favourite city in the world?


8. Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, from around grade 5, when I read Harriet the Spy.

9. What was your very first story about? When did you write it?

My earliest stories were for kindergarten Show and Tell. They featured the daring exploits of my brother Jason (one day he ate a brick, another day a dress.) I may have neglected to mention that they were works of fiction.

10. What was your favourite book as a kid?

Harriet the Spy and The World’s Best Fairy Tales.

11. If you could be any character from any book, who would you be?
Smilla from Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

12. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?

I wish I had the brain that wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.

13. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?

I’d like to ask the geniuses in the Writers’ Room of The Simpsons to marry me. “John? Al? George? Anyone?” 

14. How do you organize your library?

By genre: Non-fiction, poetry, favourite novels, Bhutan.

15. What’s on your nightstand right now?

Buddhism Without Beliefs (which is always on my nightstand) and The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

16. Where is your favorite place to write?

Near an open window, in the utter absence of leaf-blowers and lawn mowers.

17. Do you have any writing rituals?

I go through the four stages of writing: procrastination, bargaining, pseudo-writing (“Making lists: 13 minutes. Researching cocktails from 1926: 28 minutes”), acceptance.

18. When do you write best, morning or night?

19. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
The Writer’s Ultimate Gift Basket would contain books, coupons for a maid service, good quality coffee, and sincere high praise.

20. What is the best advice someone could give a writer?
“Use a pencil.” I got this advice from Nino Ricci when I said I was having trouble with plot. His suggestion to write early drafts in longhand helped me to really think about the shape of the story (instead of merely polishing the sentences I already had).

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Every Time We Say Goodbye Playlist

One of the (many excellent) editorial notes I received on my manuscript suggested I anchor each section more firmly in time -- without slapping down the years in big bold typeface on the chapter heads. (But it's so much easier to make a big authorial announcement: Attention reader! This section starts in 1925 and ends in 1942. Also apparently not allowed: gathering all the characters in one room at the end and having a previously-unintroduced detective explain all the mysteries.)
Working in historical references -- movie titles, wars in the news, teen singing sensations -- was harder than I expected. Even harder: making the reference sound natural and organic and essential to the scene, rather than something slathered with carpenter glue and wedged in.
The manuscript already had quite a few song titles, though -- organic and essential to the scenes. Some came from a giant bag of CDs my friend Dan gave me to help me think about the 1940s; others came from memory (my stepmother singing “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden,” quite cheerfully in the kitchen in spite of...well, in spite of everything). 

At the launch last week of A Cold Night for Alligators by fellow New Face of Fiction author Nick Crowe, I picked up a playlist entitled "Gator Songs" -- a list of songs that inspired Nick while he was writing his very compelling (and very funny) debut novel.

And now I'm stealing his idea.
Below is a list of songs you will find playing on radios and sung in kitchens in Every Time We Say Goodbye:
  • “My Melancholy Baby” by Bing Crosby
  • “Don’t Cry, Baby” by Bessie Smith
  • “You Belong to Me” by Patti Page
  • “Prisoner of Love” by Perry Como
  • “We’re Off to See the Wizard” by Judy Garland
  • “(I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden” by Lynn Anderson
  • "You Are the Sunshine of My Life” by Stevie Wonder
  • “Delta Dawn” by Helen Reddy
  • And of course, Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" (the Ella Fitzgerald rendition).

Monday, February 7, 2011

Writing Is Like (v. 2)

Writing a novel for the first time is like playing a new video game (uh, when you've never played one before). First, you waste a shit-load of time selecting hair colour, boots and a sword for your avatar, activities which make you feel like you're playing the game but which have absolutely no bearing on the outcome.

Level / draft one: you're in a green meadow with a castle off to on one side, and your avatar is running around, leaping over logs, banging on the walls, trying to jump into a window, tossing rocks at the door, basically trying anything to get into that damn castle. When the door finally opens, you aren't even really sure if it was the combination of leap-knock-with-rock that did it. But you're in.

Level / draft two: what worked at level one does not work at level two. You're stuck in a turret with a chest that does not open and three monkeys. You know there's a grammar to the game, but you don't know the rules and you don't have the cheats, and the monkeys are just annoying. You turn off the game. Then, in the middle of doing the laundry, you realize what will open the chest! (Note: between turning off the game and pouring in the detergent, four months have passed.)

Level / draft three: it seems that you've been following some game-within-a-game which, while terribly amusing, has nothing to do with the main quest. You really, really want to start playing some other game right now. In fact, every other game in the world seems better, easier, and more appealing than this one.

Level / draft four: you can see the end, the final steps, the logic of the last level. There are moments of exhilaration, usually just before your avatar falls off a cliff and you have to start the section over again. Also, the monkeys are back, but you know how to handle them now. You tell a game-playing friend how much you've learned completing this game. She says, "Yeah. But the next game will be a whole different story."

At least you'll be better at the controller.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writing Is Like (v. 1)

Writing a first draft is like sketching something in pencil. Every sentence is tentative, a light feathery mark on the page. You go over the good lines, making them darker. The rest of the page is a blank. Suddenly, an idea opens in your head, and in the big white space you hastily sketch an almost-complete picture. You are pleased. You get up to get coffee. You come back and look at your draft. You are not pleased. You erase most of it. Then you erase the rest of it. Start again. Scratch, scratch. The shadows of earlier drafts are still there, faint crossings and shadings under the new. Now, no matter how much you erase, the page will never be completely blank again. Unless you throw out the page altogether. (But frankly? The crumpled page on the floor is a movie convention, like paper grocery bags.) 

Monday, January 24, 2011

How Much of This Story Is True?

Question: Is Every Time We Say Goodbye based on your own family?
Answer:  Yes and no. Or, better yet: yes, but.
Yes: I wrote a novel about absence, abandonment and adoption because so many members of my family have been separated from those they love – children from parents, parents from each other, people from themselves.
Yes: many of the details in Every Time We Say Goodbye were snipped, clipped or ripped from my own life: my brother and I did grow up in my grandparents’ house beside a creek, we did see our mother one Saturday a month until we were teenagers, and there really was a stolen car in our garage at one point.
But it’s hard to describe that particular room in the mind where the past (or anything else) gets turned into fiction. I don’t think there are two separate production lines, one for autobiographical fiction and one for completely made-up stuff. (In fact, I would argue that the same machinery is used for both fiction and autobiography -- hence the spillover that so outraged some of James Frey’s readers.)  
In Every Time We Say Goodbye, the text became a separate place, and the narrative made demands of its own. Characters that might have begun their lives as somewhat resembling Auntie Jan and Uncle Trink began to live and breathe as independent creatures. Sometimes I reached out of the text and groped around in a remembered room for details, but more often, the writing self was doing what it needed to do: making stuff up in order to get the story right and true.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Money for Nothing

In my college class on humour, we begin our unit on comedy and censorship with a discussion of Lenny Bruce’s 1961 arrest for the use of the word cocksucker. My students find this quite shocking -- the arrest, not the word.
In comedy, the line of acceptability is there to be crossed. Once the line is crossed, of course, it moves.  What was once unacceptable becomes merely risqué, and eventually, with repeated crossing, mainstream and safe.
In its recent decision declaring the song “Money for Nothing” unsuitable for broadcast because the lyrics contain the word faggot, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council argues the reverse -- what was formerly safe (a 25-year-old song) is now unacceptable.
 The CBSC argues that the acceptability of the word has changed: other racially driven words in the English language, ‘faggot’ is one that, even if entirely or marginally acceptable in earlier days, is no longer so.  The Panel finds that it has fallen into the category of unacceptable designations on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, marital status or physical or mental disability.
And if the lyrics disparaged sexual orientation, I would agree. But they do not. They disparage the bigotry of the oafish character spouting the words. He scoffs at the bands he sees on television, calling them yo-yos and yes, faggots: “That ain’t working,” he proclaims. “That’s the way you do it: you play the guitar on the MTV. “
In its decision, the Panel did acknowledge the legitimate artistic usage of an offensive word:  “Individuals who are themselves bigoted or intolerant may be part of a fictional or non-fictional program, provided that the program is not itself abusive or unduly discriminatory.”
The Panel goes on to say that while the song may fall under this category, legitimate artistic use is apparently not enough to make it acceptable for broadcast.
The Money for Nothing Guy is the Archie Bunker of 1985. We are meant to laugh at him, not with him. (In fact, you can hear Mark Knopfler cracking up as he sings “banging on the bongo like a chimpanzee.”)  The lyrics satirize a discriminatory attitude, and as in all satire, we align ourselves not with the speaker and the literal or surface message, but with the implicit moral code underneath.
In my humour class, we discuss instances of satire being misread, that is, where readers or listeners mistake literal words for implied message. So sorry, CBSC, that you missed the message, and are now on my list of Examples of People Who Just Don’t Get Satire.
It's a good thing no one in Canada is broadcasting "A Modest Proposal."