Friday, December 31, 2010

Bear Creek Park in winter

Happy New Year to one and all.

Photos: taken with my cell phone.

Solstice Poetry

Photo: Poet Sheila Martindale, by Park Studio, Victoria
In Victoria, the Times-Colonist has just published some wonderful poetry to celebrate the winter solstice. Check here to read and hear Victoria poet Sheila Martindale's poem and see a wonderful picture of her by Debra Brash.

Sheila is a member of the Canadian Authors' Association, Victoria and Islands Branch. She was a member of the organizational team that put on Canwrite!2010 at the Harbour Towers in June.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hybrid era for crossword fans

Photo: Adam Kuban

Crossword puzzle fans are no longer restricted to newspapers and books. It's now possible to do puzzles online, checking your work as you go. Saves the frustration of erasing and smudging the newsprint, but translates into even more hours in front of the computer.

My favourite is New York Times Crossword. But now I have a hybrid option. New technology notwithstanding, I still like the hands-on feeling of pencil and paper, so I sit at the table and fill in what I can, circling the clues I'm sure I don't know and can't guess. I go to the computer and google these, then return to the table and finish there.

If there's a blank I don't know but can't search for, there's always Rex Parker. He has the puzzle done within a few hours. Numerous options there. I look only at the one answer I want to see, moving the completed puzzle up or down the screen so I don't unconsciously see answers I'm not looking at. Or I can check out Rex's archive for the answer to a puzzling clue.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cloud echoing the sun, then snow

Yesterday I was up at sunrise, which came with scattered clouds. As the sky brightened, I raised my eyes from making the bed to glance out the north-facing window.

What I saw was disconcerting and mysterious: a bright round disc, larger than the moon but in the wrong place for the sun.

Bright as a planet, this ball of light was screened by the edge of the trees; by the time I moved to another window to see it better, it was gone. This strange phenomenon was so short-lived that I almost thought I'd imagined it.

Opening the front door to get the newspaper, I had seen the moon in the southern sky, in the phase where only half of it is visible. It looked round and rich, casting its light on fluffy morning clouds.

Through my office window on the same side of the house as the front door, the sun shone on me from the south. Was this third orb I'd seen a reflection of the sun?

Today the ground is covered with a light coating of snow. As is typical of our climatic region, it is damp, and will not last. Meanwhile, every surface is covered in a soft forgiving white and the world looks different and beautiful.

The luxury of time at home allows me to see the particular magic of each unique day.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Still point in midwinter

At this time of year, I enjoy the human equivalent of hibernating. After Christmas is over, the leftovers stowed and the turkey bones put in a pot to simmer for soup stock, I come to a full stop. Beside the Christmas tree, I sit down and start doing puzzles.

At this season a jigsaw is de rigeur. Early on, I  persuade family members to participate, but once the border is complete (we always begin with the border), I'm mostly on my own. The jigsaw is laid out on the coffee table, under a special light my husband has rigged for me.

While I lean over the puzzle, my daughter sits near the fireplace with her laptop and plays an open-ended creative building game. When we speak, our conversation is desultory.

When I get stiff from sitting, I rise and move around, come and see what Yasemin has built since last I looked. She gives me a tour, then offers to play podcasts of the Christmas stories of Stuart McLean. Together, we laugh at the familiar lines and jokes.

There is nothing to hurry for, nowhere to go. The house is full of food, flowers, music and family and I want nothing more. I love to sit here on my annual creative inner pilgrimage of doing absolutely nothing.

This is the still point of midwinter, on which the productivity of my days in the coming year will be founded.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas flowers synchonized at last, almost

All my Christmas flowers bloomed at the same time.
Well, not exactly. First the tiny white narcissus filled the living room with a light fragrance.

Photo right: Christmas Cactus, from Kate's Photo Diary

As the buds of the Christmas cactus began to burst, the first pot of narcissus was fading. Fortunately, I had a back-up from the produce store, where I also got a pink poinsettia.

Meanwhile an amaryllis I started in October had buds of vivid red by Christmas Day. Not exactly as planned, but still beautiful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Portal variation on bridge dreams

A couple of weeks ago, I had a bridge dream- the first in many years. Coincidentally, I have been listening to Marion Woodman, who spoke about how bridge dreams symbolize movement to a new phase.

Bridges, stairs, doors, she said. Last night's dream was a variation on a door. I was approaching the U.S. border. Passport control. In the lineup, I felt quite relaxed until I noticed pencil marks in my passport.

I should have erased those," I told myself. And then, as the line crept forward, I thought, "or maybe not. They would have noticed an erasure, and they wouldn't have liked it." I moved steadily forward, feeling fatalistic. If they were going to let me in the country, they would, and if they weren't, there was nothing more I could do. I had prepared my passport; it would get me through or it wouldn't.

This reminded me of a brief conversation I had with Betsy Warland when I met her by chance while in the process of applying to the Writers Studio. "Do you have any advice for me?" I asked.

Betsy shrugged. "You know what you know," she said, and I found her words strangely soothing. In this passport dream too, I felt calm and accepting. All the preparation is done. Now that I've been accepted at TWS, I calmly await the awakening novelist.

In the dream, I woke up before I got to the customs counter. Nothing to do now but exercise patience and faith. Believe that I will be able to enter the country of my novel and finish it at last.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas rituals mark sameness and change

From childhood days, I clearly remember the sound of Queen Elizabeth's voice when she concluded her Christmas radio address. "My husband and I," she would say, speaking quite literally the Queen's English, "wish all of you a very happy Christmas."

Like paintings stashed away in the attic or old tunes on tape, the Christmas spirit is rediscovered each year. For me, the remembered sound of the young Queen's voice invokes memories of my long-dead parents and my siblings as children.

On Christmas eve, we had crackers with cheese, smoked oysters, and pickles. Dad's Danish blue cheese, eaten only at Christmas, was a nod to his Scandinavian heritage. Sitting around the stove, we cracked fresh walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds and stuffed ourselves with Japanese oranges. Christmas breakfast always featured Mom's favourite black currant jam.

The turkey dinner I'm about to make features the same foods: brussels sprouts, mashed turnips and potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce, bread and butter pickles and stuffed olives. I do the stuffing with rice now, and some different spices. Mom always made bread stuffing with sage, but my family didn't care for that so quite early on, I innovated.

My trifle goes back a long way too. It's an adaptation of a recipe from my friend Pat's mother, a Cornish war bride. When I make Auntie Alice's trifle, I can hear her jokes and laughter. Only after she was dead did I learn that as a young woman she sheltered with her nieces and nephews under a table during the blitz, and told them stories that made them laugh and distracted them from the danger.

It's the unfolding ritual, along with memories of Christmases past that makes this midwinter celebration so powerful. The sight of the decorated tree, the sounds of carols and the smells of Christmas food evoke a series of Christmases past. And yet each Christmas marks newness and growth. Just as the days lengthen after the bleak midwinter, our lives grow brighter too.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Changing technology and Queen Elizabeth wave

Last night we saw The King's Speech. Set mostly in 1936, when wireless (which meant radio then) was new, it reflected how the world was changed by the new technology. The king must now speak on the radio. "In the past," said George V, "we had only to be seen. Now we must invade people's homes like actors." He spat the word, alluding to radio. In spite of this view, his funeral would be televised.

Shortly after ascending the throne, the eldest son of George V abdicated in the midst of an unprecedented drama which ensued when he insisted upon marrying the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. The next in line, who reigned as George VI, was the father of Queen Elizabeth II. He absolutely had to give speeches, including on the radio, and the film centred on how this "reluctant king" with a speech impediment stepped up to the plate as Hitler marched in Germany and Churchill said what other British politicians of the time would not: "There will be war with Germany."

Radio was the beginning of mass media, and it was soon joined by television. In 1952, both the funeral of George VI and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth were shown on TV. Today we can go to the internet and see bits of those very films.

A powerful childhood memory for me is hearing the Queen's speech on the radio, something Mom enjoyed and Dad teased her about. In the Royal Tradition, this blogger, who has lived through the music and voice eras of transistor radio, ghetto blaster, reel to reel tape, 8-track tape, 45s, LPs, CDs, MP3 and more, would like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Imagine you have received my interpretation of the famous Queen Elizabeth wave.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Toy fox disrupts "house cat" mode

Picture: "House cat Mode"

My daughter came home with a toy red fox the other day -- one of a series of endangered animal stuffies.

The eyes seemed so alive I almost believed I was looking at a fox whelp. My husband began jumping it up and down on the floor in front of the cat, and in that instant, the house pet was gone and a wild animal stood in his place.

He bristled, arched himself up and backed stiffly away to shelter and observe. When he skulked under a bed, my daughter had to coax him out. From the safety of her arms he was shown the toy again and encouraged to smell it. It took a lot of catnip and lovey-dovey to calm him down. No doubt our laughter had annoyed him too.

Cats domesticated themselves, coming to live with humans of their own volition. Human granaries were attractive to mice, and no doubt this influenced the feline decision to team up with people. But even after all this time, house cats are still half-wild.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wiccan, Carrier spiritual energy not eclipsed

Photo: atomicshark

Waiting at the bus stop, I began chatting with two women. We spoke of the dearth of bus benches, the weather and the coming lunar eclipse.

They looked as if they might be retired. One's hair was silver gray; the other's was salt-and-pepper. I mistook her for a Filipina until she spoke; then I recognized the soft accents of a member of a BC native nation.

"Having the eclipse at the same time as the solstice is very unusual," I remarked. "An astronomer on CBC radio said that these two phenomena have not coincided for nearly five hundred years."

"The moon has a lot of power," said the woman with the salt-and-pepper hair. "I am a Carrier. We believe the moon can take away our sickness. We use ritual to expose ourselves to its light."

Also on CBC. a spokeswoman for the Wiccans expressed excitement that the eclipse coincides with the winter solstice. It was beautiful from the porch -- from the Dark Sky Preserve would be even better.

May the positive power of the human spirit reign; may our hopes of a bright future for ourselves and our planet never be eclipsed.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Bell Centre rings with the sound of violins

Photo: Stilfehler

From the front of the balcony at the Bell Centre for Performing Arts, we absorbed the pristine sounds of a dozen violins, three cellos and and a bass.

The first part of the concert was a Concerto Grosso by Arcangelo Cortelli, followed by Telemann's Don Quixote Suite. Both pieces were conducted by violin virtuoso Dale Barltrop. Don Quixote was narrated in a dramatic and humorous fashion by Alessandro Juliani.

In the second half, VSO Concertmaster Barltrop electrified the audience with his solos as the string orchestra played a gorgeous rendition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, on which he also gave a brief commentary.

The large audience -- the auditorium was nearly full -- received the evening's inspired music with a well-deserved standing ovation.

The Bell Centre is the only concert hall I've been in that has no stage curtains. But by now I've got used to the satiny shimmer of the light wooden panels that stand in place of draped velvet.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The McGurk Effect is a marvel of the human brain

The McGurk effect is an astonishing demonstration of how the brain "creates" so much of what we consider reality, and how it fills in the gaps to make the flow of sensory input appear seamless.

It's a simple matter to observe the extraordinary powers of the brain to make us believe what we are seeing. To experience how the effect works, all that is necessary is to observe a certain video, first with eyes open and then with eyes closed, and notice the astonishing difference that visual cues have on what is heard.

I believe this is valuable information for language learners. People who make an effort to look like they are speaking English are much better understood than those who don't.

As I never tire of telling my adult English language learners, making improvements in the stress timing and intonation of their sentences automatically makes their English more intelligible, even if the pronunciation of individual words remains the same.

I take the McGurk effect to be evidence of this view.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Brief Encounter goes on and on

In co-production with the Manitoba Theatre Centre, The Vancouver Playhouse has launched a great version of a 75-year-old British play called Brief Encounter.

Created by the brilliant dramatist Noel Coward, the original stage version was published in 1935 as Still Life; the black and white movie Brief Encounter came out in 1945. A story of impossible love, this film is considered by many to be one of the best romantic dramas ever.

In the fall of 2008 in London, I went to see the Emma Rice's Kneehigh stage adaptation of Brief Encounter at the Haymarket. I loved it. I sat in the front row and shared interval conversation and a Bath bun with a mature woman and her young niece. At the end, we asked the young woman: "Did she do the right thing?"

"Of course she did," said the girl, and when she gave her reasons, her aunt and I exchanged a satisfied glance. This evening I asked my friend and my daughter the same question, and got almost exactly the same response. It's a lovely play, something people profoundly relate to.

The Playhouse has brought equal measures of laughter, poignancy, music and humour to the stage as I enjoyed in the London production. With wonderful costumes, sets and staging, the play is exceptionally well done. In contrast to its title, the lifespan of this story is anything but brief. In this incarnation, though, it will continue only until December 23.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The winter solstice approaches on the blue planet

The winter days are short but yesterday was sunny and bright. I drove along River Road enroute to Vancouver to enjoy a Christmas lunch with colleagues.
Photo: pelicans at Nuevo Vallarta

The Fraser River was brilliantly blue and smooth as glass. It looked like a lake. This impression was strengthened by the presence of a huge flock of gulls swimming on the far side. The brilliant midday sun picked out their whiteness against the red of a string of barges, with their white lettering, "Seaspan."

This view reminded me of another lot of birds on another dock. The birds were pelicans, not gulls and the boats were fishing and pleasure boats, not barges. In Puerto Vallarta the length of the day does not vary much by season.

When it rains or is overcast, the ocean is grey, as it is here. But on this midwinter day in the temperate region of the blue planet, the colour of the water was much the same as it was that day in Mexico.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Weapons of Mass Distraction III

Image from pinterest

The television was the first weapon of mass distraction that used the same stimuli to pull the attention of hordes of people in the same direction at the same time. When TV was new, "the box" was feared and criticized for its hypnotic power. The internet is far more alluring.

The smart phone is potentially addictive too. Beside us at every hour of the day, it serves as our alarm clock when we wake, and stays by our bedside table as we sleep, ready at any moment to flash, vibrate, or play the sound of church bells.

These dramatic technological revolutions have altered society and our brains in profound ways. Yet, immersed in the current "normal," we mostly remain unconscious of this influence.

Not very long ago, eating at a restaurant used to mean quiet conversation and dinner music. Meeting friends for a meal yesterday, I was could hear loud music pounding through outside speakers as I approached the cafe. Beneath the flashing TV screens inside, we huddled close in a booth, barely able to hear each other.

"Why must we be constantly entertained?" remarked a woman I met while waiting to board the ferry from Yarmouth to Bar Harbour. She suggested we sit at the front of the boat to avoid being in the line of vision and noise from the huge TV screens flashing a constant CNN feed. Thanks to her welcome advice, we enjoyed the crossing with a peaceful sea view and no TV. Now the CAT is no longer running. Too noisy maybe?

As yet, we don't definitively know how the constant barrage of light and colour affects our brains, or our minds. We do know that unlike a computer, the human brain does need some quiet time. At least mine does.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Weapons of Mass Distraction II -- The Cellphone

Having a cell phone means you're never going to be alone again. That may sound nice to an extrovert, but for an introvert like me, the idea can be terrifying. Suddenly, anyone who knows your number can interrupt your thoughts. The landlines have already been taken over by people who want to sell you things.

With the cell phone, your friends and family have a line on you every hour of the day. I first got an inkling of the practical implications when I had a conversation with a student who kept looking at her cell phone in class, and frequently ran out into the hall to answer it.

"Where are you?" I asked her. "In class, or on your cell phone? You can't be in both places at once."

"But I have to pick up," she insisted. "Otherwise my friends get mad. 'Where were you?' they ask me, 'Why didn't you pick up?'"

I tried to be reasonable. "Couldn't you let your friends know you have a schedule? Tell them you can't talk on the phone during class."

But this made no sense to her. She was convinced that she was at the beck and call of her friends. If they phoned, she had a duty to pick up. If she didn't, she'd later have to explain why. I thought this was an isolated attitude, but among the young it is becoming more common.

What does it do to your relationships when you are always available to anyone who happens to know your cell number? I shudder to think. But then, I am an introvert. I love those moments of privacy and silence. In fact, sometimes I absolutely need them.

Weapons of Mass Distraction I

Our wonderful new age tools are swords that cut both ways. On the one hand they make our work and communications easier, they are also tools that can be used against us.

The telephone, once an instrument of connection, has now become a source of distraction. Without our permission, sales forces buy and sell our phone numbers for their lists. Our attention is then distracted by a barrage of calls from people we've never met.

Using telephone soliciting to stay in the game, increasing numbers of charities now call with money requests. There is little doubt that they have suffered losses against aggressive telephone advertising campaigns; yet, unfortunately they tend to join the hit list of unwanted distractions that come though our home phones.

It's hard to focus on chosen tasks in the supposed peace and quiet of home when the telephone is constantly ringing with a steady stream of irrelevant sales calls from coming in at all hours, now from India and the Philippines as well as all over North America.

The telephone solicitors are getting smarter. They've developed tricks to get people to pick up. Once they realized that the call displays were giving their game away, they began to use local numbers that look as if they might actually be someone the telephone subscriber knows.

These calls are invasive and distracting, and yet the mere fact of having a phone makes us unable to escape them. Even if we don't pick up, or don't engage, the damage of unwelcome distraction is done when the telephone rings. Of course the call display also tells us if the call is a welcome distraction from a friend.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waiting to cross the next bridge of dreams

In my early forties I had a series of bridge dreams. In one of the most dramatic ones, I was on the verge of crossing in a car when I realized the bridge was incomplete. I had almost driven off the end of it, and had to back slowly away, heart in mouth.

Other dreams involved bridges that were half-underwater. In one I waded through soft sinking sand; in another I got soaking wet and ruined a white coat that I was fond of, knowing at the end of the dream that I would not be able to wear it again.

Then one night I received the dream vision of the completed bridge that I had seen partially constructed in earlier dreams. It was a high shimmering rainbow span and I marveled at it. That ended the series of bridge dreams.

Around that time, James Hollis was on CBC radio talking about the psychological tasks of maturing. Middle age, he said, raised new questions about our identity. Who are we, apart from our roles? He also said bridge dreams symbolized the transition from external authority to internal authority, and I liked that idea.

Recently I had another bridge dream. I was in Regina, though it looked more like Edmonton, bisected by a deep gorge with a river running through. To make the crossing, I had to climb down some steps that had been carved into the rocky wall of the canyon.

Venturing down, I saw that the bridge was just a river ford. The stones were jagged, slippery and half-underwater, and the current was fast. I woke before I could cross. Now I await the next bridge dream of what I hope will be a new series.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Will King Charles or William reign over Canada?

Now that the young Prince William is engaged to a charming young lady, some people are suggesting that Prince Charles should be passed over and William should be the next king.

This idea has come about perhaps because Prince Charles has a somewhat tarnished history. He was blamed for breaking the heart of and then divorcing "the people's" celebrity Princess Diana. Marrying a divorcee didn't help his reputation either, especially when he and Camilla Parker-Bowles were already good "friends" during his marriage to Diana, who felt this made her marriage to Charles a bit "crowded."

Strangely, all these royal hijinks have quite profound effects on Canada. Outside Quebec at least, many Canadians still revere, or at least like and respect Queen Elizabeth; for the reasons stated, it is hard to picture King Charles being able to command the same loyalty.

The eventual passing of our monarch will bring trouble for Canadians. If we decide to stop having the British monarch as our Queen, then shouldn't we also deal with the fact that our Senate is appointed?

And if we deal with that, it would seem logical also to try again to deal with the fact that Quebec is not a signatory to the Canadian constitution. Neither are any of the three territories; that thought logically raises the issue that Canada's Indian Act still exists, last revised 1985.

Far better, then, to have the young and innocent Prince William jump to the head of the royal queue, and leave these longstanding and thorny Canadian constitutional dilemmas to drag on a bit longer.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Prince who may be King of Canada

Prince William is engaged and the citizens are agog. After all the royal kerfuffles of recent years, people are once again ready to enthrone another fairy prince and princess, it seems. In Britain, this is entirely understandable.

But in contemporary Canada it seems irrational for the citizenry to be so taken up with Wills and Kate. Why on earth must we insist on our claim to be reigned over, however powerlessly, by the heirs of the reigning monarch of our former colonizer?

Yet we "English Canadians" (and what a vague and dated term that is!) are still in many ways the children of what only a couple of generations ago we called our mother country. Such powerful and longstanding historic ties are not easily forgotten.

Primogeniture: the right to the throne of the monarch's firstborn. My father, who was descended from Scandinavians, used to ridicule this notion. Mom loved the Queen and Dad enjoyed needling her by making anti-royalist remarks.

Born in Newfoundland, Mom was thirty-two when she married my father in 1944 and emigrated from the British colony of Newfoundland to Canada. It would be another five years before Newfy became a Canadian province. Mom left her colony but not her Queen.

Today's multicultural Canada is a very different place from the one Mom immigrated to, but we're still a monarchy. With Queen Elizabeth, we share long history and great affection, even in Quebec, though to a lesser extent there. But what about her heirs?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Choir and Harp music gifts of Christmas

Last Sunday the Vancouver Welsh Men's Choir played a concert at the Massey Theatre with Winter Harp. Things dovetailed beautifully.

After going with my family to choose our Christmas tree at the neighbouring farm where we always get them, I was dropped off at the door at the last possible minute. The signals for the audience to be seated were already sounding.

As if that weren't luck enough, when I asked to buy a ticket at the box office, I was given a free one. Someone was unable to use it, and rather than see it wasted, wanted to give it away.

Dressed in their medieval best, Winter Harp opened on harps and other ancient instruments. Then the choir filed in from the sides, filling the hall with their melodious voices. More than a hundred strong, men of all sizes and shapes, in formal suits with wine ties and cummerbunds filed onto the stage, ranged themselves behind the harps and sang. Pure magic.

Evening found me walking through residential New Westminster, new CDs clutched in my bag. Many houses had festive Christmas lights.

My cell phone rang, and my daughter's voice inquired. "Where are you, Mom?" I glanced up at the sign on the intersection where I was standing and reported my location. "I think if I just go down here," I said, "I'll soon be at the station. I'll call when I'm on the train."

But the walk took half an hour. I'd overshot New West Station and arrived at Columbia. Long walk, short train ride, station pickup, home and family. The final gifts of a very special day.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Harps and voices cast spells with seasonal music

It's the season of the year when days are short and weather is chilly. As humans have done for eons, we brighten the winter with our midwinter ritual celebrations of music and light.

Last weekend, I was fortunate to hear two wonderful concerts. Both combined harps and voices. On Saturday evening, Harpistry, led by Mehlinda Heartt, played Christmas music with a women's choir called Ensemble Etoile.
Photo: Winter Harp image from, Nov 29, 2010

As we didn't have advance tickets, it was fortunate that my friend and I arrived early at St. Mark's Trinity Church on Larch Street. The concert was packed; after we were seated, many more chairs had to be brought out as the pews were full.

Under the able artistic direction of Roseanna Chu, sixteen women's voices swelled both alone and with the seven-harp group, which included two very young harpists. The concert also included a voice solo by Sarah Ann Chisholm and a harp solo by Heartt.

The artisan who made had made some of the harps was in the audience; he was asked to stand and be applauded.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Good intonation helps to promote understanding

The classroom door opens, and two women step into the hall. "See you later!" The intonation is nearly perfect, the pronunciation good too.

The wave looks Canadian -- a gesture delivered casually, as the speaker looks back over her shoulder. Passing the doorway, I hear the teacher respond with the same words.

At VCC, my workplace, I walk behind the two ELSA students. One takes the other's arm and they walk energetically down the hall. As I follow, I'm not eavesdropping but listening, as an ESL teacher often does.

The native language of the woman who wished her teacher a cheery farewell is Chinese, I decide, and the other woman's native tongue is likely an Indian language. She is quieter than her friend. Though I love the game of guessing native languages, I can't be sure of hers.

They look at each other and smile, "To Metrotown?" Again, the rising question intonation is near perfect.

"To Metrotown," responds her friend, her tone dropping at the end of the word like that of a native speaker. Their language learning strategies are excellent. They are using English to interact with classmates whose native tongues are different, fearlessly imitating the talk of polite native speakers.

Successful language learners understand that in order to be understood, they have to sound like others. Good intonation is often more important than good pronunciation of individual words.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Beach in Winter

We usually associate beaches with summer, but there is something wonderful about the beach in winter.

This photo was taken at Double Bluff Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. But it could just as easily be White Rock.

Winter beaches are deserted and wild. The wind blows and roils the water.

Walking is invigorating, and for those who know how to read them, the chilly air brings messages of inspiration.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gunnar Nilsson lives, but he's not the same man

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larrson, I have developed a nostalgic longing to see Sweden. I feel connected to Sweden in a more intimate way than one does to an ordinary novel setting, because my paternal grandfather was from Stockholm.

I just finished meeting a writing deadline and an editing one, and my reward was to begin reading this book. And like so many things in life, it came at the perfect moment.

How do I know? Subtle signs. I found the name of one of the characters from a novel I'm working on. I'm not sure how important a character Gunnar Nilsson is in Steig Larssen's book. I think he may be minor, the kind some authors call a spear carrier. But then again he may not.

The point is, seeing his name was an echo, reminding me of my undone work, and it made me more determined than ever to finish my novel manuscript.

And the opportunity is coming. In January, I join The Writers Studio at Simon Fraser University. Then the other Gunnar Nilsson will stand up. He's Canadian, though a Swedish descendant of course. He's my protagonist Caroline's husband.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Finally found out what a caubeen was

Image from Patrick Taylor page on Amazon

Reading Patrick Taylor's recent book, An Irish Country Courtship, I finally found out what a caubeen was. The question arose quite a few years back when I heard it in the words of a folk song.

"Take off that hat, my darling Pat,
Put on your old caubeen," sings the wife to her husband,
"For tonight's our golden wedding
And I want them all to know
How we looked when we were wed
Forty years ago."

I asked many, including those of Irish background, but nobody knew.

And yes, I did try googling the word, but didn't find it because my attempt at spelling it was completely off the mark. I was looking for cobbeen.

Thanks, Patrick. Reading your book was a blast. Learned a lot more too, including the Irish origins of many of my Newfoundland mother's expressions, though she was not of Irish descent.

Now I want to know the writer of the song. Or is it a folk song? Couldn't find out -- even in the Mudcat Cafe.

Friday, December 3, 2010


These days we live fast. Abbreviations rule. We even recycle acronyms to mean new things, though this can create confusion. Taking over as Department Head at the college, I became an IRA -- an Instructor with Responsibility Allowance. I never got used to the term.

I still associated it with Irish Republican Army, so frequently mentioned in the Irish folk songs we sang in the sixties. I never quite came to terms with the cognitive dissonance created when the two meanings clashed in my mind each time someone called me an IRA. (No, I wanted to reply. You've got me wrong. My only politico-religious belief is anti-ismism.)

Then there's MLA. The Modern Language Association has just published a seventh edition of its documentation style handbook, confirming parenthetical notations in the text as the norm. Generations raised reading online texts with live links are unperturbed by these little objects. For me, they disturb the flow of meaning. I still have fond memories of numbered footnotes.

Of course in British Columbia, MLA also means a Member of the Legislative Assembly, our provincial parliament. Yes, that's the very same place where the Opposition party is engaged in an internal cat fight just when the governing party has shot itself in both feet.

Fortunately, some acronyms remain unambiguous. A BLT, or bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich can be ordered in any diner by using its short epithet. Parents of young children know the vaccine combo contained in MMR. And for Canadians, the latest mischief CSIS gets up to never ceases to amaze.

By the way, I don't mean The Center for Strategic and International Studies. I'm referring to the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Funny thing happened enroute to the finish line

Sunday midday. I had written a thousand words in an hour and would crank out another nineteen thousand before the day was out. If this proved impossible, I still had two days to make the word count.

My story was moving forward; I was getting closer to the characters. Saturday, I had the plot along; Sunday I began to consider how I would weave in stuff from the earliest scenes.

As seasoned Nanowrimists predicted, past the halfway point, things started to go better. Then things got weird. Somehow in the excitement of uploading my latest version, I managed to submit it twice, accidentally doubling my total.

"You're a winner," flashed the Nanowrimo screen. Should I take the certificate and run? Of course not. It would defeat my purpose in doing this exercise, and it would be unethical.

I'm sure Isabel Dalhousie would approve of my finishing anyway. After all, I made the free and open promise. My reason was neither the flashing congratulations on the screen, nor the certificate. It was the learning that results from taking on a challenge like this.

At the SIWC in October, Ivan Coyote told a room full of writers "You are your own worst enemies. You are the ones who have to overcome procrastination." My head agreed with this sentiment; now at the end of Nanowrimo, my whole body knows it's true.

The last night was killer tough because I let too much work pile up for too little time. But I made it. Under the wire at 11 pm. I earned my certificate. I'll print it off tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

No buskers, no hot dog man at the station

During the 2010 Olympics in February, BC Transit started requiring buskers to apply for licences to perform their music in the train stations. I blogged at the time that I thought that was a crazy idea. If the musicians believe in their music enough to be out in all seasons playing, let them play.

As a regular transit user, I used to enjoy hearing music as I descended the escalator into the Commercial-Broadway Station concourse. What I miss most is the sound of the Andean winds; that haunting music used to float up the escalator to greet me as I floated down.

Another thing I miss at the new version of what used to be called simply Broadway Station before it tied into the other line is the hot dog cart. For years and years the same vendor plied his trade just at the bottom of the escalator on the southwest side of the entrance.

I don't much care for hot dogs, but I always enjoyed the aromas of grilling wieners and frying onions from the car. I only bought a hot dog from the cart once. But the man never seemed to lack for customers. Now he's been gone -- for awhile. What's happened to him?

The station concourse is large and spacious, but there are no longer benches on the south end of the platform at Broadway either. Things go along the same for a long time; then when they change we become aware of small losses that our senses miss.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Brown brogues, black suit, red tie and stories

Image from cbc

After years of reading, listening to and laughing at his wonderful stories, on Sunday afternoon we saw Stuart McLean live for the first time.

He gave his Christmas concert at the Centre for the Arts on Homer Street. Between McLean's stories we heard wonderful singing by Jackie Richardson, along with guitar and voice by Matt Andersen. Also between stories, Vinyl Cafe regulars Dennis and John played double bass and piano respectively.

Watching Stuart McLean perform live was fascinating. Long, lanky and slightly bow-legged, he proved to be a very physical storyteller. He kicked coltishly with his feet and waved his hands to punctuate the actions in his tales.

Picking audience favourites from a hat, he told 7 much-loved favourites, including "Dave Cooks the Turkey," in fifteen minutes, as well as delivering full versions of two brand-new ones.

McLean had giveaways -- books and cds -- to appreciate the concertgoers, and he needed help to distribute them. Enter Hanna, a twelve-year-old girl volunteer. In her fancy dress, pearls and bright blue crocs, Hanna was a charming hostess who engaged gamely with Stuart's repartee.

The stories are funny and the characters, like our family members, friends and neighbours, are easy to identify with. It's easy to see why McLean is Canada's best-loved story teller.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Comfort Food Weather

Photo: crepes with warmed summer fruit from the freezer, by Yasemin

This is the season for comfort food. Soups are on the menu, especially hearty ones. Last week at our house it was Scotch broth, and this week lentil soup cooked Afghani style. Warming meals like chicken cacciatore and curried lamb provide excellent winter fare.

Salads are chunkier now, with red cabbage, cauliflower, cooked beets and carrots taking over from summery salad vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes. Cheese or stuffed olives can be added.

Cooked summer fruit from the freezer served with warming crepes, pictured above, evoke August fragrances, as well as satisfying the palate, the tummy and that old sweet tooth.

The peaches in the photo are cooked with a bit of lemon juice, sugar and tapioca to make a chunky warm jam for the crepes, and the frozen blueberries are heated in the microwave.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Year of blogging dangerously

It's been a great blogging year. Don't know exactly when to date the anniversary, but this seems as good a time as any. My first posts last November were essays I'd written but never published; hence the name of this blog. When my adult daughter complimented an early impromptu post, I knew I was on the right track.

As my process evolved, I started to take note of how the words looked on the page and learned the art of visual editing. On screen, I discovered, paragraphs needed to be short; lots of "white" space was good for onscreen reading.

Over the next few months, I gradually discovered that I was breaking many rules about blogging. I didn't care. I was having so much fun and learning so much that doing it "right" didn't matter.

I learned to edit, edit, edit. Pare the message down until it doesn't go past "the wrinkle," though sometimes I still do, like now. Link to related material, including You Tube videos. Illustrate with my own pictures, or other pix for which I can obtain permission.

The greatest joy has been to write about absolutely anything I want. Whenever something interesting comes into my head, I use it. It only takes a few words to post these little ideas.

I've been using HiStats since January. I've notice that many of my readers hail from cities where I've never been, or know nobody. Friends may say they'll check out my blog, but for the most part, they don't. Yet I've had visitors from 23 countries now, and 120 cities.

Occasionally people respond, as a busker did from New York. She heartily agreed with my sentiment, posted before the 2010 Olympics, that buskers should not be required to apply for licences to play music in transit stations. From her link, I heard performance in the subway.

On the whole, it's been a great blogging year. Next year, I look forward to becoming even more proficient at this new-found art form.

Geranium, like the Mary Ellen Carter, rises again

The sun has come out and the snow that was with us for a couple of days is melting rapidly. Though geraniums are not winter hardy in our region, on the back deck, my potted one has not given up yet.

Just yesterday it was covered by at least ten centimetres of snow; today the leaves, still green, stand bravely supporting the pink buds of hope. As soon as the weather improves, the plant seems to be saying, we will overcome this temporary setback and carry on.

As the British know well, Carry on! is a great motto. Today I must carry on with my promise to myself to finish my Nanowrimo novel. The time for procrastination is over. Only yesterday I passed the halfway mark, but my fellow scribblers keep telling me in email pep talks not to give up. Around the halfway point, they say, the process gets really interesting.

And it does. Because of what I am learning, I will carry on to the end. Even if I do fail to beat this looming deadline of November 30 at midnight, I'll rise again, like the Mary Ellen Carter.

In a ballad by the late great Canadian folksinger Stan Rogers, that sunken ship is raised from the bottom by sailors and floats once more at the dock. (You can listen to this remarkable song here.)

The rousing chorus is filled with encouragement for people everywhere who have lost something of great importance:

"No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Seeing what's always there

A snowfall clothes the familiar world in a calm and equal white. Fresh snow colours the light of the world clean.

In snow, we perceive things with a new awareness. The fresh snap of cold on the cheeks and the snow-altered scents of air and plants evoke remembered winter childhoods. We feel reborn. Snow muffles feet and the sounds of cars, slows life to a pleasant walking pace.

In the special alertness brought on by the presence of snow, things normally overlooked are freshly apprehended as the world slows down.

Though I look daily at the maples outside my office window, especially when their leaves turn to beautiful autumn colours, it was only in yesterday's snow that I noticed the birds in these same trees. Two tiny chickadees were flitting between branches, shaking the snow playfully from their wings.

Snow also reveals animal tracks. When the back porch and garden are covered in uniform white, the tracks of wild creatures become visible. The raccoons who inhabit the adjoining woodland now reveal their habitual paths, and if coyotes cross the garden, we know it.

A neighbourhood cat leaves telltale tracks as well as tufts of orange fur on the front doormat, revealing where he sat borrowing warmth from the house. Our own kitty leaps and plays in the white stuff, and his paw prints make plain the paths of his habitual patrols.

This is the great virtue of snow: it make us to slow down and notice what is always there but rarely seen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thank you, dear Lemony Snicket

Dear Lemony Snicket,

Your message came today and saved me. I laughed out loud reading it and once again I told myself "What the hell? Who cares if it's not perfect?" I will finish it.

I only have a few more days, but that's okay. No matter how much procrastination it takes, no matter how much caffeine and comfort food. No matter how many preliminary games of computer solitaire. No matter how many more crosswords I have to finish, just so I can get back to the novel.

In my inbox is another message from a Nanowrimo participant, but I refuse to read it yet. I have seen the acronym TGIO, and I don't want to know...

The writer's life is funny, but I'm glad I'm getting my feet wet. I am utterly determined to finish my stupendously lame novel, which I am having fun writing, even though I have to practically torture myself to start. Even though right now I am only halfway through.

And now that I have put it out here, what a fool I will look, what a sham I will be, if I wimp out. Ergo, I have no choice. I must complete the 50,000 words by midnight on November 30.

What am I waiting for?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dance Marathons

During my first year at UBC, I lived in Totem Park residence. After growing up in a small northern town, I was eager to get an inside view of some of the more exotic aspects of campus life.

Among the activities I enjoyed most were the dance marathons. These were were held at SUB, the then-new Student Union Building. Dancing to live bands went on all night. For those who needed to sit down for awhile, horror movies were shown simultaneously in the theatre downstairs.

For the intrepid dancers who lasted the whole night, there was a pancake breakfast. The pancakes and coffee provided a pleasant fuel for the short morning walk back to the dorms and my bed.

At the time, I had no idea about the checkered history dance marathons. Even when the movie came out, I didn't watch They Shoot Horses, Don't They. The title put me off; I loved horses.

Then a couple of years ago, a friend and I were driving through the valley and she started telling me about the dance marathons that happened during the dirty thirties, and about the idea she had for a story about those poor people who danced till they dropped, hoping for a little cash. It would be a kids' book, she said. The title she had planned was Elsie and the Silver Rain.

Silver Rain, by Lois Peterson, was published this year. I attended the October launch, which was held at Arthur Murray Dance Studio in White Rock, to hear Lois read and to watch some dancers perform the samba and the tango, dances popular at the time of the marathons.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A passing parade of technologies II

When I began to teach downtown in the early eighties, I joined the NFB film library. My friend and I used to walk over to Georgia Street to browse for films our students would like. The films consisted of reels stored in cans. Some films were on one reel and some on two. I carried my selections back to work at the YMCA in my satchel.

Teachers had to learn the complex set of steps involved in threading film onto the projector, as well as how to troubleshoot when things went awry. After the showing, we had to reverse the reels and fast forward the films back onto their original reels before returning them.

NFB films were highly respected; one I remember showing was Dr. Helen Caldicott’s documentary film If you Love this Planet, a sobering caution against the use of nuclear devices. That film generated a lot of conversation. One student who had served in his nation's army said he'd been trained to use field nuclear weapons.

I had been taping people so they could hear their English speech and I could comment on how to improve oral grammar and pronunciation. This man stayed after class and asked me to give him the cassette tape to destroy. "I revealed something I shouldn't have," he said, "and I want to feel easy in my mind that nobody can find out."

Last week I heard another news story about Dr. Helen Caldicott, who was in Canada talking about nuclear issues in Port Hope, Ontario. She recommended moving the entire town because of radioactive contamination, a legacy of nuclear industry in the area.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Statistics can lie, but they can also tell the truth

It's easy to "lie" with statistics. But numbers can also tell the truth. A few days ago, driving in to Vancouver, I took a rest from listening to the lurid plight of Ian MacEwan's singularly unappealing protagonist, Michael Beard, (Solar, 2010) to listen to CBC.

It was International Toilet Day. Clara Greed, a professor of Inclusive Urban Planning in Bristol, who has just received the OBE for her work for potty parity for women in Britain, was interviewed first. Due to a dearth of facilities, UK Women, especially elderly ones, said Greed, must carefully plan their journeys to ensure access to toilets.

In the US, John Banzhaf, a professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is working for porcelain parity for women by working to change laws and building codes. Mary Clancy, a former Canadian parliamentarian, reported that she had to lobby for female facilities in the House of Commons during her early tenure there.

There was a mildly comic aspect to these stories, and I laughed as I listened. Then the topic turned to the third world's devastating lack of access to basic sanitation. Hearing about the shortage of toilets for schoolchildren in Kenya changed the mood completely.

Lizette Burgers, UNICEF's chief of water and sanitation spoke from from her office in Bangalore, reporting that though the Indian government of has recently increased the budget for new toilets tenfold, the shortage of facilities remains a severe social and health problem, especially for women and girls. The final statistic was the shocker. No fewer than six hundred million people in India live without toilets. Check the story if you find that unbelievable, as I did.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A passing parade of technologies I

When I was a child, our house was heated by two stoves that burned wood. In winter, the cook stove in the kitchen burned steadily. After some rather messy modifications done by Dad, it functioned as a hot water heater too. The water circulated through a hot water jacket in the firebox and was piped to a large tank with a temperature gauge.

Dad kept an eagle eye on that gauge. When it crept too high, he would ask, "Who wants a nice hot bath?" We all understood this was not a question. I volunteered often, and learned to love the heat of the water in the drafty cold of the winter bathroom.

Both the kitchen stove and the small Quebec heater in the living room threw a lot of cosy heat, provided you didn't move too far from them. My mother cooked in the wood stove till long after I left home, when she finally got an electric range.

On the farm, Mom had used sad irons. These were heated on the stove and held with a special holder. The cast iron held heat well, but a second one stayed on the stove for when the first cooled down. When we moved to town, Mom got a dry electric iron, used. The first steam iron was a big deal.

The pop-up toaster was also a great innovation. Previous to that, we used to toast bread in a wire cage on top of the stove. When we did the same later at Guide Camp, my girls said we were like pioneers.

Upon arrived in Terrace, we got a telephone. The very last word in communications technology, it was fastened to the wall and designed so you could dial any number without having to ask the operator to connect you. And a private line meant no one could listen in.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Snow Light

(Photo: Snow in the back garden)

The first snow of winter fell on Surrey last night and I woke to the beauty of snow light.

The time has arrived for knitting and sitting by the fire. Also, the time for cooking hearty winter soups and doing occasional bits of a certain kinds of baking -- gingerbread dogs and other winter and Christmas delights.

And of course, the time for donning toques and gloves and winter boots and going outside to walk around in the snow. It's also a perfect day to visit Christmas at Hycroft, and that's where we plan to be before long, providing the roads are passable.

Encouraging Prisoners to Communicate

The SIWC, the Surrey International Writers' Conference, is one of the best in the world. Rising from humble beginnings at a local high school, it now packs the Sheraton Guildford, Surrey's largest hotel.

It was writer Ed Griffin, a former Catholic priest, who established this conference. He also started the Surrey Creative Writing Diploma Program. A priest of writing rather than the church, Ed loves encouraging other writers. He still teaches writing classes, and continues as the valued founding member of the Rainwriters.

Ed also goes regularly to Matsqui Institution to encourage prisoners to communicate their stories through the written word. Before that, he worked with prisoner writers in Wisconsin. His dedication has made a positive difference for many incarcerated men.

Ed gets a lot of satisfaction from empowering writers to record their stories. Men in jail who rise to his challenge and learn to write inspire him too: after Ed's prison visits, he recently told an interviewer for Spotlight on the Arts, he goes home and "writes up a storm."

Several local writers have joined Ed on his prison teaching visits to Matsqui. World-renowned novelist Diana Gabaldon, a regular at the SIWC, now accompanies Ed on a prison visit each October while she is in town for the conference.

Ed has just completed yet another writer-friendly initiative. He's established an education bursary for prisoners through the John Howard Society. Education, he says, is a proven way out of crime. This bursary fund is still accepting donations. For more information about The Ed Griffin Educational Bursary, check this link.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Remembering Dad's New Technologies

Photo, left: Kerosene lantern (

I was in my late thirties when I sat beside my dying father. As he lay in his hospital bed, he looked back and thought about things he remembered. Listening to him reminisce about the changes he'd seen in his long life was something I found familiar and comforting.

"As a child," he told me, "I walked barefoot behind the plough and oxen. "Now," (there was awe in his voice though the news was more than twenty years old at the time), "we've put men on the moon."An immigrant farmer from Sweden, my grandfather was a technology enthusiast who kept his radio tuned to CBC.

When I was a teen, Dad was the one with the transistor. His tiny radio sat on his bedside table when he lay on his bed, as he often did, reading about the ancients. His radio too was tuned to the CBC; to my annoyance, he never failed to listen to the newscasts.

In 1969, we watched the moonwalk with our neighbours; we had no TV at homw. But we did have electricity and running water. Until I was eight we lived on a prairie farm. Our heat came from wood and coal-burning stoves, and we carried water.

Our light came from a variety of kerosene lamps. Dad came home one day with a noisy sputtering gas lamp; we oohed and aahed when we saw how dim it made the light thrown by our biggest kerosene lamp.

I came home for Christmas one year to find that Dad had acquired new radiant kerosene heater. Taking it into my room at night, I reveled in the heat thrown by the red-hot dome-shaped element. On the down side, when heater kicked in and the element glowed against the silver reflector panels, the room was nearly as bright as day.

Oh, the joy of going to bed without the necessity of pushing my feet down into the icy reaches of the sheets, the luxury of not trying to sleep in the same position so no body part would have to touch bedding that I had not already shivered into warmth.

Best of all, to rise in the morning to a room already warm was extraordinary luxury. Yet, though the climate here is much warmer than there, and though now we use a toasty down-filled duvet in winter, I still sleep best in a cold bedroom.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Double Bluff

Double Bluff Park,
Whidbey Island,
October 2010

Double Bluff. It's also something you do in a card game. And it's a lovely name for a story.

The day I visited was cold and windy. I spoke to a young surfer in a wetsuit. He smelled like marijuana. I asked him for directions to the Cottages at Hedgebrook, but he was from Tacoma; he didn't know the island very well. He said he had come to meet his friend and surf.

"I brought this bad weather," he said. "I feel guilty. The surfing conditions were perfect till I arrived."

Long thin line of houses along the coast. Tsunami evacuation route signs along the road. Wind and waves. There has to be a story here.

Probably that was what Agatha Christie was thinking when she published The Murder at the Vicarage in 1930.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aceepted by the Writer's Studio at SFU

It's a thrill and an honour, and I'm really excited. I've been accepted into the Writer's Studio at SFU and I couldn't be more pleased.

On the other hand, I now have to finish my manuscript, and that's scary. What if I can't finish it? What if it's not good enough?

What if I do manage to finish it, and publish it, and then everyone hates it?

In a similar vein, the inner voices chorus away, trying to intimidate me. Well, it won't work. Not this time.

This time I'm fighting back. Quiet, editor! I have to finish a manuscript before it needs to be edited. That's when I'll call on you, and not before.

Quiet, Inner Critic! You can't criticize what hasn't been written yet. That comes later. Lie down, now. Go back to sleep.

"Get over it," says another part. "Writers write and people read what they write. After all, isn't the whole purpose of getting published so that people can read what you write?"

But then, fear isn't a rational thing. Still, it can be faced up to. I intend to conquer it.

Changing the Story

"You should write a mystery," my daughter advised, "you read so many of them." But somehow, I got started on a fantasy. And bogged down.

Then yesterday I got a new lease on story, found myself writing about two real and present characters that came out of the woodwork. I thought they would be peripheral to my story -- spear carriers, so to speak.

But I'm beginning to realize that one of these may, in fact, turn out to be the main protagonist.

Follow the story, follow where it leads. In the end, I may have a mystery and the fantasy part may just get cut.

But that's all okay. The only rule is to finish the 50,000 words in the time allocated, the month of November.

I'm catching up, too. I think I've survived week two. Nearly a quarter of the way through the 50,000 word count, and I have two weeks to go. I'll just have to do the rest in double time.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The real meaning of a plugged nickel

It's not worth a plugged nickel. So went a saying that has now fallen out of use. Apparently my idea of a plugged nickel as one with a hole though it (and my brother had the same idea) was wrong.

According the The Phrase Finder, there was a time when people made holes in coins and filled them with cheaper metals.

Sounds like a labour-intensive kind of counterfeiting, especially when it must have been obvious that a coin had been plugged...

Each era brings its own scams, I guess.

Thanks to other Nanowrimists on the path

One of the most liberating things about doing Nanowrimo so far is finding out that other writers -- even published ones -- have the same challenges as I do.

In Victoria, local writers are meeting at The Black Stilt Coffee Lounge to scribble away together. I like that place -- my daughter took me there when she was studying at UVic. Folksingers then, like in the sixties. Now I imagine a bunch of writers hunched over netbooks not notebooks, coffee within easy reach. Times and technologies change, but the writing process -- not so much.

I loved reading about the Folly files of John Green. Knowing about them gives me permission to carry on with the story I'm writing, even knowing already that it's destined for my own Folly file. Even so, I feel chuffed to think that this opus can count as one of those early novels that most writers have written. Early novels in drawers I mean, the ones that never see the light of day. So thanks, John, for your part in liberating my words.

Another writer whose pep talk I really appreciated was Lindsey Grant of Oakland. Now there's a scribbler who sees inside the minds of fellow writers, to where the temptation to quit looms large in Week Two. I definitely had a case of the Week Twos, but just as definitely, I'm going to make it to week three, and then week four and the triumphant end. Thanks, Lindsey!

Through the slogging, blogging about Nanowrimo is another lash to keep me going. If I've promised to finish, I must and will deliver; the eyes of the blog watchers are watching me!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Catching up with Nanowrimo

I got behind, and I have to catch up. Fortunately, I am not alone. Writers, they say, need other writers. In this Nanowrimo venture, the writers who are encouraging me are people I've never heard of and never met. Those emails have been a real help.

We all have the same challenge -- getting the butt into the chair and cranking out the words, in a regular fashion, no matter what. Ruthless was the word Elizabeth George used, and I like that. Your have to write ruthlessly, let nothing get in the way.

That way, the words keep coming, and the scenes keep coming. I am several days' worth of writing behind, but I will catch up. I want to and am determined too. This is an exercise, not a brilliant bestseller. The point is to keep going.

By the end of November, I will be among the success stories. All I have to do is produce 50,000 words. No complaining, no excuses. Without fail, 50,000 words of story, coming up.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A plugged nickel

This morning I woke with an old tune in my head -- a Depression-era ballad my Dad used to sing about a man who tries to pay for a donut with a plugged nickel:

"She looks at the nickel and she looks at me, and she says,
This nickel is no good, can't you see?
There's a hole in the middle and it goes plumb through."
"Well," says I, "there's a hole in the donut too."

A plugged nickel. It's an expression I haven't thought about or heard for a long time, though I heard it many times in my childhood without ever questioning its origins.

"It ain't worth a plugged nickel," Dad would say, and we knew he meant the thing he referred to was something he considered worthless.

Our neighbour Homer used to say it too. Men of that era had their own expressions, now nearly forgotten.

Here is the image I formed in my head when I heard the expression as I sang the song this morning. Out in the backwoods, a man in a mackinaw places a nickel on end on top of a tin can on top of a stump and then gets his rifle and sees if he can shoot a hole in it.

If he's a good shot, the result is a plugged nickel.

Patience and faith

All you have to know is the next step. This advice is everywhere, and though I thought I knew the truth of it, I never applied it specifically and consciously to my own life.

But reading or hearing something is one thing and living it is quite another. You don't know something until you live through it. Doing Nanowrimo, I am discovering how the above maxim works in real life.

It's amazing what happens when I sit down to write my story. I work on one scene, and as I press the keys, the next scene flows into my mind. Then, as I complete that scene, another comes in. When no other scenes come to mind, it is time to rest for the day.

I am learning to my amazement that if I can tune in to what Salman Rushdie called The River of Story, I receive the story I am supposed to tell now in small increments.

The rest, like life itself, requires only patience and faith.

Fall down seven times, get up eight times

Image from wikipedia

Today I have to apply the determination suggested by this proverb. The national novel writing month organization, Nanowrimo, is my learning tool. In six days, I have learned a lot about what blocks my creativity. Besides fear, of course.

I'm doing Nanowrimo for the first time; I committed to the idea without knowing the ropes. I was still on Whidbey Island when I created my account, but I couldn't get into the system. It was Day One; numerous eager participants were logging in.

I started to write. After 500 words, my ideas began to peter out, and I was tempted to get up from the chair, saying to myself that it was time to be on the road home. But I refused to be distracted, and told myself I couldn't go anywhere until I had the day's word count.

The view from the window onto the verandah, with its two rockers facing the sea cliff, gave me an idea. I began an new scene, and finished my daily allocation in about fifteen minutes.

Then I came home and returned to work and normal life. The week went by and I didn't write. Mentally I set aside Friday as a catch-up day. I had no errands and no appointments but I got distracted by other undone tasks, mainly stuff that was piled on my desk.

As I did these things, I recalled some of Ivan Coyote's comments at the SIWC -- "You're your own worst enemy. It's your job to find out what works for you. I can't write in a quiet place and I can't write in a dirty house. It takes me 45 minutes to clean and then I can write."

And I can't write at a disorganized desk, I told myself. That was my justification for clearing it. But when it was clear I still couldn't get started. Even a pep-talk email from a fellow Nanowrimo participant wasn't enough to get me to take the first crucial step and begin.

Early evening found me trying to write on the netbook at the dining room table, but that made no sense. Why use the tiny screen when the big one is only two rooms away?

It was after 9 pm when I finally logged on. I was expecting a phone call for a pick-up from the train station, but determined to write until then. I loaded the 1600 words I'd done originally, read the last few lines to jog my memory about what was going on, cranked out another couple of scenes and pressed submit.

Over 2700 words. Great. But when I went back to continue, I discovered something. Once the words are counted, the file disappears. It was my only copy. Today I face the blank screen again, even more behind. Like T.E. Lawrence, I have to regenerate what was lost and carry on.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Purple shoes and disappointment

I sometimes wonder. Am I the only person with wide feet? There must be more of us, but not many. We're a very small market, so shoe manufacturers don't bother to cater to our needs.

I've been looking for some comfortable new shoes that are not boring, not ugly, not black. Just wide. Very, very wide.

Those of us with wide feet have a special kind of radar: we catch a fleeting glimpse of shoes and think excitedly, Those just might fit! Once in a blue moon, they do.

Today I thought I had lucked out. I was early for the dentist, and when I got off the bus on Broadway, I found myself looking into the display window of a shoe shop. I glanced in and saw a pair of purple suede loafers that looked both handsome and sensibly wide.

The young salesman was indifferent. No, he said, they don't come in wide. He handed over the first box, then crossed the store to simper at his reflection in the mirror. I held my breath and eased my foot in. My size, 8 1/2. The left one was perfect; the right hurt.

I asked for size 9. No nines, the clerk reported, and brought out size 9 1/2. Too loose. Maybe a nine in black? Casually, the young man dashed my hopes. No nines in any colour, he said. No hope of getting more. Their season was over.

The lovely purple, the almost-fit -- it was so very disappointing. The good news is, I've become realistic. I'm no longer tempted by any shoes that feel less than fabulous. I'll have to keep looking.

Monday, November 1, 2010

So long, Teddy; Hello Nanowrimo

Today I say farewell to the charming Teddy Bear that sat on my bed here at the Inn and strike out for home, following the less-travelled route: the winding highway that meanders up the island to the bridge at Deception Pass.

On All Saints' Day I call on the saints of writing and my personal muses to guide my hands as I join in a challenge that is going on all over: National Novel Writing Month.

This will be a seat-of-the-pants effort. All I have now is the original idea, and the determination to control my point of view by beginning the first sentence with the word "the."

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Whidbey Hallowe'en with one set of footprints

Photo: view across Saratoga Passage to mainland from Saratoga Inn, Langley, Wa.

Hallowe'en in Langley. In the street at dusk, I bowed to a regal king, patted a striped kitten, was startled by a squawking raven. Then I watched a man in an orange boiler suit put a jack-o-lantern in the back seat of a car. Earlier in the day, Bob Mayer taught us about the writing business, described the changing face of publishing and talked about what it takes to become an author.

The need to change is seen first with the MOE, the moment of enlightenment. Then comes the decision to change, and finally the sustained action that leads to altering unproductive habits.

After lunch, Elizabeth George visited the class. She described her process, bringing along an entire set of organized files and photographs to show us while she explained how she generates her manuscripts. We asked her some questions, then bid her adieu.

Bob then discussed some of the psychological barriers to becoming an author. The greatest of these was fear: paradoxically both of failure and of success. Of course, up his sleeve, Bob had a few strategies for overcoming fear. Yet fear can also be good, he explained.

In fact, much of what we learned Bob presented as "good news, bad news." It seems that in the world of writing and publishing, every benefit has a down side and every problem an advantage.

By the time our little group finished the Warrior Writer workshop, dusk was near. I used the remains of the daylight to walk in the mild but cloudy weather. On First Street I noticed a little green strip with a set of wooden stairs leading down to the beach.

I admired the statue of the boy looking out to sea, his dog beside him ready to play, then descended the steps and set out along the damp strand. To my surprise, mine were the first footsteps to mark the sand. The only sounds were bird calls and softly lapping waves.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Novel Writers' SOS at the Saratoga Inn

Photo: Late hydrangeas grow in the front garden at the Saratoga Inn, Langley WA

Writer of thrillers and non-fiction Bob Mayer, with numerous novels currently in print, hosted the Novel Writing Workshop today and will lead the Warrior Writer Workshop tomorrow.

Mystery writer Elizabeth George will come by for an hour or so to talk about her writing process and answer questions.

Today was loaded with practical information about creating the novel; we worked on expressing a story ideas in a single brief sentence, as well as on plot, characters, setting, story arc, point of view and more.

Tomorrow we talk about the business of writing and publishing; today Bob commented on how fast the industry is changing.

Sobered to hear that the past year has brought more changes to publishing than the previous twenty, I was simultaneously encouraged to learn of Bob's optimism about these changes, which he believes are harbingers of opportunity for writers.

Definitely, with the wealth of information available to would-be writers here this weekend, the Saratoga Inn is a great place to be.

After a spectacular sunrise that displayed an even series of white peaks across the water on the mainland, we had a little rain today, and the weather is cloudy. But the rhododendrons are still blooming around the library and the temperatures are balmy in this charming sheltered seaside town.

Experiencing Whidbey Island

Photo: Charming old houses of Coupeville, WA

Yesterday afternoon I crossed the border from BC into Washington in brilliant sunny weather. My google map instructions, spread on the front seat, directed me to leave the I5 at Exit 192 near Everett and take the Mukilteo Ferry to my destination in Langley, WA. At Burlington I noticed a sign for Anacortes and Whidbey Island. This wonderful route meandered along a secondary highway and brought me to the high double bridge onto Whidbey just as the steeply slanting sun lit the sea and islets with late light.

I drove along the winding highway south, past sea views, farms, forests, gardens and a busy You-pick pumpkin patch doing a booming pre-Hallowe'en trade.

I passed Oak Harbour, Coupeville and Freeland as dusk faded. By the time I came upon the sign marked "Langley," I was beginning to think I'd missed missed my turn. It was night when I drove into town.

Even in the dark, this colony of artists looked lovely, and I was delighted when checking in to note that my room faced the front, and the sea. Now all I had to do was catch up on a bit of pre-reading to be ready for the novel workshop I came for. I look forward to working with Bob Mayer again.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gingerbread Dogs

Photo by Yasemin Tulpar

Remember gingerbread men? Well, at some point we gave up making them. Maybe it was just too hard to eat human-shaped cookies. Anyway, for the past few years now, gingerbread dogs have been a tradition around our house.

Though it's hard to eat something so cute, they're easy to make. I've been doing it so long. It's one of those seasonal markers that takes root when children are young and becomes an important family ritual of the winter season.

This year the cookies were needed a bit early, to illustrate an article that is coming out in the Christmas issue of West Coast Editor.

So there I was, late at night as usual, rolling out the dough and decorating the doggies with shiny sugar beads as eyes and collars. It felt like a touch of early Christmas, filling the house with a seasonal warmth and sending the fragrance of cinnamon and gingerbread into the dreams of my sleeping family.