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.