wet meditation

That's what I call my half hour swim every morning - wet meditation.  In season, that is, when classes are running, I go over my Icelandic numbers; other times I plan menus and grocery lists, going over the contents of my fridge, checking out leftovers I must use.  Sometimes, as this morning, I begin with the next section of an essay I'm working on, the introduction to my book. But then I lose focus and move around. I surprised myself this morning with the range of my thinking, not that it was inspiring or profound, but that it covered so much geographical territory, all within the limits of an outdoor pool, I mean, not even a lake.  

This is a nice, non-theatening use of inner dialogue, semi-directed but wide-ranging.  The late writer and my friend, W.O (Bill) Mitchell (1914-1998), used to assign writing students an exercise he called "free-fall".  The purpose was to unleash hidden thoughts and unexpressed ideas and give them free rein, see what's lurking there in the sub-conscious.  Some people found seeds of a story, or maybe a character in a story, or maybe fewer inhibitions.  That's a positive negative, isn't it?  The idea is not to think, just to write.  That's not quite what I do when I write my daily blog though it must read like it at times.  The trouble with the inner dialogue is that it's so layered, so tangential.  Inchoate.

I think so.  Cogito ergo sum. 

Harlequin romance

I actually went through a period in my life when I was addicted to Harlequin Romances.  It was after I was widowed and I missed loving, being loved, aka sex.  I found an HR book somewhere, read it and cried. I missed being held and the goopy little romance reminded me of what I was missing.  I read more such books.  i called them safe sex.  I got over them soon but for a few months I was reading about five a week.  Silly me. 

I'd forgotten about them until the other afternoon when I was checking out my mini-tablet  (no WiFi on  the bus) and found some free downloads of Harlequin Romances - no idea where they came from - but I thought, how bad can they be?  I used to read them, after all.

In a matter of minutes, I switched off Minnie - aargh! - what a terrible book!  The grammar was appalling; the choice of words was ridiculous and often inaccurate; the emotions were unbelievable; and the focus on the wrong kind of details totally insulting. Oh dear.  

At one time, when I was flailing around trying to make a living, I thought I might try writing one of those soppy, happy stories, but found I could not.  It's trickier than it looks.  At times in my career I have been a writer-in-residence at various libraries where I had to read  writing samples of wannabe writers.   I could spot a fake attempt at an HR in the first few paragraphs, especially the ones by men.  They simply were not authentic.

The late novelist, John Gardner, (1933-1982),  who was a fine creative writing teacher and a great influence on Raymond Carver, for one,  commented on this kind of kitschy writing. He said , "Not everyone is capable of writing junk fiction. It requires an authentic junk mind."  

I just don't have it.  Too bad, I guess.   Harlequin writers make a lot of money.

sic transit Gloria mundi

Remember that fractured Latin translation: Gloria gets sick on the subway every Monday?

 I thought of it yesterday when I came home from my lake retreat by bus.  I don't get sick. I doze and think, and I'll tell you another discovery tomorrow.  But for now, it's the trip.  Without a car, I have been taking public transportation more and more, not only local.  I really like trains and buses. The 401 was not very interesting yesterday but my fellow-travellers were fascinating, including  the dog. Don't ask me the breed. I can't tell cars, either. 

I wondered, when I saw it, whether its owner had to buy a ticket but later I saw the SERVICE DOG label, so then I started to worry about it.  They didn't get off the bus at the terminal where I boarded, and they had come a long way then.  Didn't the dog need to pee?  What about water?  It was very patient. It lay on the window side, shifting occasionally, to accommodate its owner's movements.  She stroked its head once in a while but at one point she started twisting its tail quite forcefully, twirling it around and around. Why did she need it?  She certainly wasn't blind.  She was painfully thin and carried on a long, loud conversation with a teenage boy in the seat in front of her. Anorexic? Bipolar? I raised more questions than I could answer. 

The couple in front of me was very young. I could see the boy's face as he looked at the girl, very loving. I could see only the back of her head when she ducked it down on his shoulder. They didn't talk much but they were in constant contact. 

The bus driver was also young and thin and very efficient. I thanked him when I left and complimented his driving.  His face lit up in surprise and he thanked me.

I notice now that everyone is younger than I am, much much younger. 

I'm not telling you a thing, but it gave me something to ponder.  That, plus scenery (yes, a little, on the 401) plus my own thoughts, back to pummel me, and a two-hour bus ride passed very quickly. It's like a time machine. You get off in a different space.


My inner dialogue actually shut down for a while yesterday.  Glorious day: swim and sun and air.

It wiped the cobwebs (pardon the expression) from my brain and left me relaxed and content and thoughtless.  Really: thought-less.  That doesn't happen often.  Remember that scene in an early Woody Allan movie where he approached a handsome-looking couple asking them what they worried about?  And they said, "Nothing."  They didn't worry about anything,  just went along with their lives and didn't think much about anything.  That's not as hard to imagine as it is to empathize with the people today who fear for their lives and for their children, who suffer pain and persecution and physical and mental agony.  I am so blessed, so sheltered, safe and secure. I must respond.

You see? I'm back.

How was your day?

farther in and farther up

I keep thinking of that line from C .S. Lewis, from one of his Narnia books and I decided that I needed to find out which one.  So I looked up the phrase on the net and found among the references, me.  I used it in a blog last October, so I must have been in East End, SK, working on the first draft of this book I am struggling with.  

Some people question whether reading too many books does you any good . How much is too much? The argument is that because you remember so little, if anything, from them (most of them), it's a waste of time and  you have nothing to show for it.   I read a rebuttal of that negative attitude in the NYT a while ago, arguing that you do retain something, maybe just the wisp of a memory of pleasure, maybe an attitude, a tone, a phrase, a name, a character . That's a lot, really.  There's a warning about eating too much: a minute on the lips, a year on the hips, something like that.  So with books you have read. Something sticks, somewhere, not on the hips, maybe in the subconscious, perhaps in the soul.

So with this Narnia memory: farther in and farther up. When I wrote about it last October, I didn't take the time to find out which of the series it came from.  Now I did, and as I say, I met myself.  The source that quotes me went on to inform me/us that the phrase comes from The Last Battle.  Of course it does, and that's why I remembered it.  I was, still am, working on my book about aging and as I keep circling the Departure Lounge, the notion keeps popping up. Farther in and farther up. 

No where to go but up?  What a lovely thought!  Well worth the time.  Stay with me?

ready for another recipe?

I'm going to visit friends at a lake again today and I cook both for them and for me. I cannot throw anything away so I cook stuff that might spoil and either take it with me or freeze it.  So here is a favourite of the people I am visiting, prepared for them on purpose:


Wash  the fennel, cut off the bottom tough part and chop off the arms.  Keep out any with fronds; fronds are very decorative.  Now slice the fennel downwards, not too thick, if the slices are wide, cut them in half, lengthwise. Chop the arms into half inch discs .  Heat oil in a roasting pan and add the fennel along with several slices of cooking onion, or red, if you prefer.  Stir and brown lightly, adding sliced garlic, optional   Optional means it depends how I feel and what else I'm cooking that day.  Stir in a few stingy spurts of Sriracha sauce and add some quartered tomatoes, or halved grape tomatoes or Romas, whatever.  Stir and mix well, and transfer to a pre-heated 375 F oven and roast for about half an hour, stirring once or twice.   Remove from oven and add a can of white beans, drained,  stirring gently.  Sprinkle the fronds artistically (?) over the surface. This serves about six as a side dish.  Or you can use it as a main dish because there's protein in the beans.  It's low-fat and good for you.

You can serve immediately or divide and freeze or give some away. That's how my friends got to taste it and like it so much.


Years ago I used to say that my happiness would be complete if I could find a Carnation milk box in good condition.  That size of box was perfect to hold file folders, of which I was gradually developing a collection.  I did find the box of my dreams and for a time I was content, with sufficient space to corral my files. Lo, how simple life was then!  Of course, I graduated to filing cabinets, lots of them, and to auxiliary boxes, the kinds sold often to house magazine collections, and Banker's Boxes that I filled to send my history away. If it hadn't been for the University of Manitoba Archives that took, has taken, keeps on taking, my files, I would have run out of Carnation milk cartons as well as Banker's Boxes a long time ago.

Then there are shoe boxes.  I'm always thrilled when I buy a new pair of shoes because i get a new shoe box, also good for filing stuff.  Before I began to do quarterly reports for my GST/HST, I used shoe boxes to hold all my receipts and necessary papers.  I think a lot of people tend to use shoe boxes for this purpose.  I actually wrote a pamphlet for the CLHIA (Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association), the umbrella organization that supplies all the insurance companies with guidelines and information.  I called it The Shoebox Guide and it was a mail-away give-away for years, until computers took over and supplied such material online.  Then the Association bought my title. I don't know if it still exists. I'll have to look it up some time.

P.S. I looked it up and it's still there. When they first asked if they could buy it from me, I said "Oh, you're going to offer a virtual shoe box guide," and that's what they called it, a virtual sbg.  How about that?

My son-in-law collects boxes and he has some gorgeous ones, hand-crafted of beautiful wood, and some of them are very large. I found him a small, pretty one made from a redwood tree, fitted together so closely you can't see the lid from the bottom. You've probably seen lots of little puzzle boxes with secret panels and hidden closures.

Boxes were invented before trunks, I think, to store and carry  one's possessions.  My husband's grandfather was a cabinet-maker. First-born son of a family firm that made beer, he found religion and renounced his fortune.  When he emigrated from Scotland to Canada with his family, he made all his travelling crates out of mahogany, painted black. Once established in the New World, he turned the boxes into fine furniture for his home.  

I don't know when the popular, over-used expression, "think outside the box" came into play but I hope it outlives its so-called usefulness soon.  There's plenty to think about inside a box. (I want to say until I'm carried out in one, but that would be pushing it.)


I've said this before

It's a line from Oscar Hammerstein's The King and I: "if you become a teacher/By your pupils you'll be taught." Don't forget that. 

I'll be meeting, that is, taking (by phone) with my mentee today and I've had a few days to try to absorb what she has written lately and think  how best to respond.  The process makes me go through my own approach again. In trying to resolve her problems, or at least to suggest possible approaches to take, I will apply what I am re-learning to my own dilemmas.  Every situation presents its own difficulty and its own various solutions.  So I go on learning.  But what am I going to tell my mentee? 

Exposition is difficult, even in a novel.  It sticks out like a neon sign in a play, when two people are telling each other what at least one of them already knows, in order to bring the audience up to speed.   A novelist thinks he/she can get away with this, just filling in the blanks in necessary information.  Not possible.  Information is boring in large doses.  You have to parcel it out, disguised as conflict, or as an insight into the character doling out all those details.  Every scene, no matter how heavily loaded with backfill, must have a beginning, middle and end.  We must have learned more than the dimensions or decor of a room or the contents of an office, including the location of the safe or computer - popular targets. We have to know what the characters think of what they have learned and maybe even what they plan to do about it.  

Okay, Okay, I'm not telling you or me anything we don't know, but it bears repeating.  While you're at it, tell me something I don't know. 

Now I'm ready to talk to my mentee.

if not now when?

What a day!  I want to say: hard and horrible but I have no right to call it that. I'm okay , just tired.  My brain is a little worn.  But I haven't written my blog for the day.  I have a file folder now full of bits and pieces, clippings and scribblings, ideas that I think, or at one time must have thought, were worthy of a blog's worth of writing. But my brain is tired and not co-operating and I can't choose. So how about I give you a list of possible blogs?  Then you can choose one for me, or - here's an idea - you can write one for yourself. Here goes:

-What if Ophelia kept a diary?

-The Queen's handbag. (contents) I've actually written bit about this - on a piece of paper somewhere.

-Comment on a statement I read by an Arthur Krystal ( author of 2 essay collections): "..some scientists claim different parts of the brain are switched on by our using a pen instead of a computer."  I've been using a pen and recipe file cards all day, trying to create a new outline. Maybe that's why my brain is wrung out.

What happens to a creative urge when you scribble a note and file it away? Well, this, for one thing. A mini-blog, a half-assed essay, an incomplete thought.

Far too self-indulgent.



the second mouse gets the cheese

You've heard that one, I'm sure, the smart argument parrying the statement about the early bird. You already know what I think about procrastination, how useful it is in separating the A-list from the C-list.  If you wait long enough, the Cs either drop off or become As and then you can see your course of action.  An article in The New York Times reports on the increasing amount (not number) of pre-crastination (sic) going on: people knocking off tasks with surprisingly distant deadlines. Apparently, doing this gets rid of the pressure of the deadline hanging over one.  Deadlines don't hang.  Sometimes they lurk, but mostly they are out there, up ahead, lying in wait.

Of course, one has tasks, jobs, things to do that have no deadline as such, but that drift on, butting into one's conscience now and then, requesting and then demanding attention.  For me, these usually rise up as I am trying to get back to sleep after a pee break.  (That's why I have a night light in the bathroom, a very dim light, very dim, so as not to wake up my brain. I don't appreciate a wakeful brain at 3 in the morning.) I don't want to think about them now, either.  I wish you hadn't brought them up.

I'll think about them tomorrow.

I'll never finish

Have you noticed that when you've been spending a long time at the computer, whether working or playing (I outlawed solitaire games several years ago but you go ahead), or doing research or browsing or writing letters, that you are reluctant to leave?  It's so easy, so beguiling, just to sit there and dabble.  Advertisers count on this.

Have you noticed that they (you know who I mean) have devised sneaky ways of finding you?  No matter what obscure thing, item or person you are looking up, a sidebar will blind-side you with a notice about whatever  you've been buying lately, about a new product or a special offer or just a reminder. Oh, they are so devious.

I saved my blog to the end of my working day, to ease me out of my departure from the magic keyboard.  Yesterday I re-read my first draft of my age book and aside from the fact that I should tear it up and start again, I've done a lot of work on it today, work that involved looking up dates and quotations and confirmations and - you know, all that tedious stuff that goes with writing a book without a secretary or a clone. Now I'm going to start playing cards.

The story goes that George Kaufman, the playwright, who was  a zealous card player, used to write  the scenes for a new play in progress onto scene cards.  When he saw the narrative wasn't working, he shuffled the cards. Expertly, of course.

That's what I'm going to do.  Although I know the method works with novels, I have't tried it on non-fiction before.  However, I have written a new outline and the chapters of the old draft don't quite fit.  So I'll put them onto cards (recipe file cards work perfectly) and shuffle them, see where they go, and then fill in the blanks. Does that sound simple? It's not.  

Bye for now. 

whatever normal is

A few more items of language have arisen again and I must deal with them.  My friend at the lake, though in total angst about his wife, still took advantage of having a writer in residence, and asked me was he correct in choosing amount to indicate quantity, a sum total, as opposed to number, also a quantity or amount, but countable, numerical. So you have a large amount of food, even money, but a number of people, or dollars. I agreed with him and added a corollary: few as opposed to less.  One can have a few dollars, but less money. 

I know: I'm unbearable.  I dated for a short time a divorcé, who prided himself on his linguistic skills.  Once, for a long date (a drive to Stratford to see a play and back the same day - I said dated), as I say a long time, he brought along a short edition of the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), a short version of Fowler's Modern English Usage, and a lexicon. He needed them  for our arguments.  He was one of the few people I felt free to correct or question, in the full understanding that he would fight back.

So I'm back to normal, I guess.

Note to Pat, to whom I cannot reply: thank you for your touching and welcome comments.

home again

The predictive corrector has prevented me from saying what I wanted to say in my title.  I wanted to say home again home again jiggly jig  - you see? -  it corrected j-i-g-g-e-t-y to jiggly.  How can one indulge in word play if this stuffy, literal monitor is going to correct my puns and portmanteaux?  Most annoying.

That's not what I wanted to say.  I wanted to talk about re-entry, however soon it comes after exit.  I was away for two (horrendous) days and I'm having trouble picking up the reins, or pieces, or strings or whatever I've been using to conduct my life. (I don't think I conduct it; I think I sort of drag it along behind me, or else it  drags me.)  In the process I have disrupted other people.  I didn't swim until 8:15 and two staff members waited for me to finish my half hour swim and exercises before they could clean the pool.  I needed that swim.

 And I washed my hair. 

I couldn't even start menu planning, couldn't remember what was in the fridge or freezer or what I'm doing the rest of the week.  Everything is pressing down on me again, some things more urgent than others, but I don't feel galvanized by the incentive, just kind of lethargic.  I remember a lovely line by the actress Edith Evans (1888-1976) in the movie Tom Jones:

"Rouse yourself from this pastoral torpor."

(She also played Lady Bracknell in a  production/movie of The Importance of Being Earnest before male actors usurped the role, unfairly.)

 I have to do something about my torpor, but  my torpor isn't pastoral, it's organic, and terrifying. Check in tomorrow and see if  I'm still here. 

tricky assignment

Now here's a tough one.

My friends keep a guest log, a handsome journal with a special pen beside it for visitors to write their impressions and thanks.  What can I say? This has been a difficult time, waiting and worrying.  If you've read the last two days, you'll know why.  And my absent hostess still hasn't had her surgery. It's been a limbo time, a twilight zone,  and the weather hasn't helped: on and off rain, more on than off, inadequate sunshine and warmth, dreary, in fact, though one cannot overlook the beauty of the surroundings - lake and sky and trees.  Mostly, I've admired it from indoors.  

And today I must leave, still not knowing what happens next. Well, of course, we never know what's going to happen next but we make educated guesses and take calculated risks. Today, this week, it's very clear that we don't know nothin'.   

I swam only twice and I was cold.  I cooked for my host, who can't cook, is a picky eater at best and not too keen on food at all right now because he is so worried.  He's not really here; he has spent his days on the phone, checking with the hospital and doctor, or phoning and e-mailing friends to report.  I brought work with me, and finished it, not much  because I was planning on vegging out in the sun.  So I cooked, using mainly leftovers. I could take a little longer and clear out the fridge, but I have other commitments.  You do know I'm the Leftover Queen.  My first cookbook was about leftovers.  I used to make house calls.  Well, I guess that's what this visit was: a house call. I hope I helped. 

I hope all goes well.

another day another blog

"Life is what happens when you were making other plans."

  A  lot of people have said that, I think John Lennon was one of them.  Oh, dear, I suppose I'll have to look it up.

I did and it was:  "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."  It's a line from the song he wrote for his son Sean, the child he had with Yoko Ono. So I guess other people who have said it were quoting him.  It's a good one.

Anyway, yesterday was like that, and it wasn't my plan that went badly off course, it was my friends'.  

I was invited to spend a couple of days at a lake, breathing clean air instead of concrete dust (from the ongoing balcony renovation), swimming (I know, I do that every day but not in the velvety soft water of a lake), drinking wine and talking to dear friends.

But one of the dear friends fell and broke her hip the day before, so it was her life that changed direction.  Her husband phoned before I left and urged me to come in spite of that.  His urging outweighed my reluctance so I went, driving my rental car, getting into his car when I arrived and spending the rest of the day in the hospital (another hour distant).  Poor lambs. They had to make new plans that include, of course, surgery - in yet another place, about two hours away by ambulance.  

We left the wounded one and drove back, with errands on the way, and I finally swam in that blessed lake at six o'clock with the sun hiding behind the tall pine trees.  Then my friend made necessary phone calls while I cooked dinner for us (cheese and mushroom omelet).  By the time I cleaned up it was late and so I came to bed....

...and could not keep my eyes open. 

Who knows what will happen today?  I'm not making any plans.  I pray all will go well. 

essays and coffee houses

I've been thinking for a long time now about Joseph Addison (1672-1719) and Richard Steele ((1672-1729) who cofounded The Spectator, a daily paper that ran from March, 1711 for a relatively short time until 1712.  They wrote essays and I had to read a selection of them in first or second year university, I forget which.  Addison wrote fewer essays than Steele but Steele seemed to think he couldn't do it without his childhood friend.  They wrote in the heyday of English coffee houses and I have been thinking of Starbucks and then of inter-net cafes and of course, blogs, which got hot only in the last seven years. 

So what better reason to write a daily blog? I'm part of a long tradition. My blogs, of course, are shorter than essays used to be.  Everything is, shorter, that is.  But it's longer than a twitter, and I use bigger words.  Have a cup of coffee with me.

how do you feel?

endorphin: any of a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system and having a number of physiological functions. They are peptides that activate the body's opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.ORIGIN 1970s: blend of endogenous and morphine. (online dictionary)

Now that's something i didn't know, that endorphin is a portmanteau word (Lewis Carroll's term for blended, made-up words).  I thought of it this morning as I was swimming - outdoors, at last - and felt the endorphins swim into me, like dolphins, no relation .  I knew the word, knew that an endorphin (only one?)  is supposed to make you feel euphoric - well - more cheerful, anyway.  Exercise is good for you, that's the message.  I wonder: can you have too many endorphins?  Sure, they're the antidote to stress.  Feeling good kind of reduces the stress level, but too much?  What if you relax so much and your stress level drops so low that you stop making the effort?

Most of what we do, so I am told, is motivated by fear.  We are afraid of what will happen if we don't meet the deadline, fulfill our obligations to others, or observe the rules, whatever they are. When someone is really stressed out about a possible consequence, the reassuring (?) question is "What's the worst could happen?"  That's supposed to make you feel better?  Just losing your job or your partner or your life savings or an arm or a leg , but not your life?  I guess such considerations help you to put your qualms in perspective so you don't stress out.  And endorphins calm you down. 

So there I was, swimming outdoors on a summer morning and feeling better in spite of concrete dust in my lungs (from the balcony renovation) and a writer's block about a new outline for the book I then must re-write after I figure it out, and I felt good.  Almost good enough to play hooky.  But not today.  

Later: I did, though.  I did play hookey -alternate spelling.


travel blog

"Perhaps the future of the travel book is the travel blog."  

Paul Theroux said that, and he should know; he's one of the top travel writers in the world. I thought at first he was kind of crotchety, not such fun or as kind or funny as Bill Bryson, who looks for a laugh and also for the best in people. But that was before I read The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux's first and greatest travel book.  Anyone who can put up with the discomforts (to say the least ) of travel the way he did/does is allowed to be crotchety. 

There have been vicarious travellers in the past. They're the people who read Lonely Planet and who pay close attention to travel guides and memoirs, but who are not wild about travelling themselves.  I remember a postcard  my mother wrote me from a southern cruise she was taking.  She wrote: "We're crossing The Great Barrier Reef.  I must look it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica when I get  home.  Did I dell you that rye is 75 cents a drink on board?"  She really did not enjoy travelling, and there are others like her: people who like to say they've been there (wherever) but who don't enjoy it at the time.  Better in the telling. 

These are the people who would enjoy reading a travel blog, as Theroux surmised.    No effort, no waiting, no bugs or heat, no risks - just the vicarious pleasure of someone else's experiences. Magic Carpet, at someone else's expense. 

I'm counting on it.

are you ready for another one?

This is one of my favourites, and it's a Weight Watchers Special, almost zero points, if you know what I'm saying.  I'm making it right now, for my supper.

Grilled Veggie Sandwich: Toast one slice of Focaccia bread, split horizontally. It doesn't matter when you prepare the toppers, ahead of time or as you pile them on, but you want to build on the foundation with slices of the following on each side, preferably in this order going up: grilled red onion (splash of balsamic vinegar), eggplant (peeled and grilled),  red pepper (grilled and peeled), broiled portobella mushroom (broiled, stem and gills removed (freeze them for  soup stock),  topped with grated mozzarella chess, or whatever you have or like, then broiled until the cheese melts. You don't really need any other seasoning with this; it's all good.

I find one half is usually enough, but of course you can eat the whole thing.  I just wrapped my other half in foil and I'll have it for lunch tomorrow.