Saturday, December 27, 2014

That Moment, Redux

Four years ago, I wrote (in a different space) about moments in which you know something has changed and your life will be different--like the moment a light comes on.

Early this month, a similar moment, even closer to home, came along and my life has changed again. Three-and-a-half weeks later, my husband is home from a heart-specialty hospital in southern Ontario, complete with a replumbed heart.

He is doing well.

I am still slightly bewildered.

But yesterday I came home from the day's errands to find him tilted back in his desk chair in his office, playing FreeCell, as he would have been a month ago. This morning I read a draft of his final report to the granting agency that funded his novel last year. He is recuperating, finding his way back or perhaps forward--pick a metaphor.

I am writing, too, of course. Because that's how I figure out bewildered, how I put bewildered into little containers labeled MTWThF with separate sets for AM and PM, how I serve bewildered onto a plate for sustenance and to minimize side effects, how I strap bewildered onto his arm and watch the cuff inflate and write down numbers, how I harness bewildered to learn what to watch for and how to solve problems.

And slowly, bewildered becomes the thing I understand, becomes what people are fond of calling "new normal," becomes just more life, more days/weeks/months/years.

My husband is recuperating, as am I. And we write.
Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How to Lose November

The month is flying by. This was going to be the month AFTER the month that disappeared. However, this one is set to join October on the "months in 2014 that went by in a blur" list.

On the up side, I've been churning through my to-do list and meeting deadlines.

But sometimes, my brain is mush, and sometimes, I click through to Facebook, and sometimes, I take those quizzes. You know the ones: "what kind of old person will you be?" or "what animal is your spirit animal?"

So far I have learned
* In Narnia, I am most like Mr. Tumnus. (Time to investigate more aggressive hair removal.)
* The word that best describes me is "cultured." (Like yogurt? So, more "curdled"?)
* The first impression I create is "innovative."(This devotee of habit, this creature of routine?)
* My spirit animal is the whale. (A good friend told me this when I was 27.)
* The type of angel wings I have (Who knew there were different kinds???) is the phoenix. (Necessary, in a writer, all that rebirth after rejection.)
* I will be a "wise" old person. (Someday, I "will be" old. Ha.)

In one of my grad school classes, we learned about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I think it was composition theory. For a research project I administered (probably unethically; sorry!) a test to my parents, asked them questions about their writing processes, and analyzed the results.

My favorite part was when my father, a historian, said his MBTI result was about as accurate as a horoscope. My mother and I shared the "Let's let him believe that if he wants" look, because no horoscope has ever pegged my father's considerable strengths and peculiarities as well as the MBTI.

I remain a bit of a sucker for personality quizzes, though I long ago learned to view results as points of useful information. So sue me. And, of course, Facebook being Facebook, once you start taking a few of them, you see more.

In any case, it's been entertaining and mostly harmless. And if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spread my phoenix wings and fly off to meet my next deadline.
Sunday, November 9, 2014

Hey, Look at This!

This past month has brought a lot of people-related events and a lot of work, much of it unexpected and all of it urgent.

On days when I'm not running to a meeting or prepping for a people-filled event, I have been full to the brim with others' words and ideas.

However! I'm also happy to say that most days I get outdoors. Sometimes I have a camera, which I'm still learning to use. So here are some pictures for you to look at.


In mid-October, I brought the rowboat around and it was raining.


I have really cute boots.


Look up, look down, look all around.


I like to pretend I meant to do the distortion, but it's really just the multi-paned glass in the kitchen.

I really like taking pictures because--even for me, the Queen of Let's Add Some Words--they don't normally involve words. I just look and then futz around till I enjoy what I see. Which is how I know I'm a dedicated picture-taker, not a photographer. I am an amateur. I do it for love, not to be great at it. And that's how I like it.

You have something like this in your life, right? If you don't, yet, try singing in the shower.
Monday, October 6, 2014

Fore and Aft

This year has seemed a little back-to-front. Suddenly we had some summer--just when the calendar started hinting at autumn, and I'd resigned myself to doing the indoor things that needed doing. Like that writing thing.

Still, we're happy to have had the chance to finish some important-but-unglamorous projects that required manual labor.

Adjusting to the weather always always always tests my (metaphoric) flexibility. If I have a morning blocked out to get through the revisions on a story, and the day dawns rain-free and temperate, going outdoors requires actual physical wrenching. I force myself upstairs to put on the mud-covered jeans and denim work shirt; I force myself outdoors: "Just bring back one load of stuff from the little place, and then you can quit," I tell myself. (Then I test my physical flexibility, which is also not naturally great.)

Sometimes that one load really is all I do. Sometimes I do more. But I do something. And 99 times out of 100, I enjoy the action itself and the knowledge, later, that I am closer to finishing that project.

Now it really is time to turn toward those indoor projects (though there are still a couple of outdoor projects on my list, fingers crossed, rain rain stay away). This morning, the temperature was in the low single digits C/thirties F (we've already had a couple of days of frost here and there), and we're looking back at a productive season, whatever you want to call it, and (I hope) ahead to another one. In whatever order the seasons want to come.

Meanwhile, a few updates.

All the work we did to update the guest room was enjoyed only a couple of nights when my sister was here. The guests who originally inspired us to get going on the project at the last minute had to reschedule their vacation when most of Minnesota had to deal with flooding in June. On the up side, the guest room's done, and clean! And I learned all that metaphor stuff about writing! Which I'm still learning and practicing daily!

I wrote about the freedom that comes when I incorporate art and play into my days. Sarah Selecky calls it "crosstraining" in this great post, here.

And speaking of play, I recently saw the local theatre's production of Ain't Misbehavin' (which has been held over for another week!). My sister had seen a production in the 1980s and shared the music with me, and I've always wanted to see it live. It was really fun! And if you're familiar with the show, and wondered (as my sister and I did) just who was this Mr. Wallace who planned the world in which the nylons will bloom again, go here. I considered Mr. Wallace recently, when I put on tights for the first time in awhile.

And now, because it's not actively precipitating at the moment, I may go see what outdoor tidying up I can get done. Happy writing!
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Lessons Re-Learned

Not everything in life is a metaphor for writing. Probably. Maybe.

For the past few days, people have been staying at the larger, less-rustic-but-still-rustic cottage* we own next door to our house (as opposed to the extremely rustic cottage on the other side of us). Their cottage has a wood heating stove in the kitchen and a fireplace and electricity; it has running (and hot) water pumped from the lake. It has no insulation, however, and significant gaps at a few places where walls don't quite meet rafters, and baseboard heat only in the bathroom (and the temperature has fallen below 5C/40F at night regularly for several weeks) with no organized heat anywhere else.

In short, these people--who claimed to know what they were getting into, who claimed to welcome what they were getting into--have had to be a hardly lot. Their planned experience, a sort of retreat from their own lives into a physical location where they control their level of interaction with the outside world and get a lot done, sounds great. However, retreats aren't for everyone, and retreats in a rustic cottage are happy experiences for even fewer.

In short, I've been concerned and busy. The place needed significant cleaning and a few improvements (a toilet that isn't cracked, for starters), which have taken our time in the past few weeks. And I've been nervous about their experience.

Fortunately, at least from the outside looking in, the experience seems to have gone well. At least they're saying so (how polite Canadians are!). Although I'm not an official participant at this writing retreat, I invited myself and was invited to participate in social evenings. It's lovely, on occasion, to spend time with other writers, and these evenings were two nice occasions.

Best of all, the retreaters seemed to be good sports. They have accepted the place on its own terms and inhabited it--they participated and interacted with it.

On the whole, I'm relieved.

Before (or after) they go, I'll of course ask how it went. I'm especially curious about the particular mattresses one person brought, since we go through air mattresses occasionally and I'd like to know what others consider comfortable.

This morning, I finally recognized why my nerves felt so familiar: because it's like getting feedback on writing.

See, I love this camp. My grandfather built it in the 40s and 50s. I've spent a lot of time ditching the detritus that built up in the decades since then, and even more time disturbing spiders with the shop-vac. When I'm there, I feel connected to family members long gone. And I wanted those staying there to enjoy it too.

Sometimes getting feedback on writing carries this much emotion, especially if I've struggled and wrangled and sighed over a piece and my revisions are just making it different, not better. What I long for at that point is for someone--who recognizes that I love this piece--to accept it on its own terms and tell me how to make it more a successful thing-it-is-trying-to-become.

I don't need people to say "you should insulate this place and winterize it" or "maybe you can tear it down and start over." I already know I don't want that piece of writing to be a house, and I'm not ready to give up on it completely. I do need people to say, "the mattresses aren't comfortable" and "the pots and pans are an odd and inconvenient assortment" and "the living room is pretty dark," and "we learned that hard way that there's an insistent and annoying leak over the fireplace."

Readers can tell you what keeps them from wanting to spend time in the place that is your piece--and how you can make being there an enjoyable experience. Even if "enjoyable" isn't the same as "luxurious."

It's still not easy to be a gracious recipient of a list of specific things that are "wrong" with a cottage or a piece of writing. But that list is valuable. It gives you options. It can remind you of why you love the cottage or story in the first place.

So yeah, maybe not everything is a metaphor for writing. But this experience is.

_____
* It's actually a "camp" in northwestern Ontario parlance, but many people know these structures as "cottages." But don't confuse this "cottage" with anything HGTV's Sarah Richardson has seen. In no way does it aspire to become a verb: no one will ever "cottage" there.
Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Project Check-In: Reading

This year, I'm reading all the books we have (with some exceptions) before buying new books. It's been an interesting journey so far (slowed somewhat by my decision to read an issue of The New Yorker every weekday during Lent).

In no particular order, here are a few thoughts:

1. I have read several "just fine" novels in a row. One was for a book club; we picked it because it was by an author I'd long been interested in trying (and I got it from the library). The rest were already in the house and I'd picked them up on sale somewhere. They were...fine. Just fine. Some were Canadian; some American. All absolutely fine, but no more gripping/fantastic than that. I may read other work by these writers, but I'm not sure I'd buy it in hardcover. These are the kinds of books that gradually fall to the bottom of the stack because something shinier comes along. I'm happy to have read them, finally. Fine-ally, haha.

2. I read a short story anthology that was both tiresome and fascinating. I'm so glad I picked it up when I did (several years ago). I have added a few new authors to watch for; their work intrigued me. That part was very satisfying. I didn't love the anthology enough to keep it nearby, and I'm still not sure where it will end up (donate? at one of the camps?), but I don't have to decide that this very moment.

3. Speaking of where the books end up: before this year, when I've finished a book but not known what to do with it, I have taken it to the little camp where my sister and I stay when she comes up for vacation, and where I sometimes go to hang out and read and write. This summer, my sister picked up, read, and opined upon several books from our camp's bookshelves (they've become part of the scenery for me). It was interesting to hear her perspective and realize just how few of those books I remembered. So I'm culling from there, too. It's definitely a convenient resting place for books when I don't need them in the house but am not sure I'm ready to get rid of them.

5. I read a novel by a famous "classic" writer from the 20th century and came away mystified. Again, this was for a book club, and I probably wouldn't have finished it otherwise (and I hardly ever give up on books). I'll look at a short story collection someday, but only one, and I'm not in a huge hurry to do it. Though I'm probably wiser for the experience of reading this novel, I'd have traded it for another "just fine" one.

So far, I've thoroughly enjoyed the virtuous feeling I get from this "reading what I own" project, and I feel I'm learning as much by reading these selections as I would if I were chasing the newest "great reads." It's also made me a more considered consumer--as I hear of a new novel, I automatically think, "Would I really want that in the house?" I may even sign up for another year. But who knows--this final four-month period may make me long for something new and shiny again.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cooling Off

The grocery store’s air conditioning provides a welcome respite from the heat after a full morning of errands. With every hot sidewalk and parched parking lot, I’ve dreamed of a cold mocha. As the barista makes my frozen treat, I hear a wail. Peering around the corner, I see her.

A little girl, not too far from her second birthday, stands in the basket of a grocery cart, fists gripping the seat in which NO, she WILL NOT SIT. Her chubby cheeks flush as pink as her sundress. Tears or sweat, I can’t tell which, pull strands of curly hair down her neck. Her eyes squeeze shut and she inhales for another round.

“Here you are, sweetheart,” a woman’s voice croons. “So hot, I know, but this will cool you down.” Nana (or Mimi or Grandma) holds a small carton of chocolate milk to the girl’s baby-bird mouth. With expert timing, Nana tips and straightens the carton, watching with a hopeful smile.

The little girl swallows, widens her eyes, and opens her mouth for more. She bounces a dance in the cart, not yet appeased but willing to be.

The barista slides my drink across the counter. Dark, sweet, smooth—the creamy coolness spreads through my torso, down my arms, across my forehead. I smile at Nana and return, refreshed, to the day’s heat. 
Monday, August 11, 2014

Playing

Fun. When was the last time your creative work (for me, writing) was fun?

When I asked myself that question, I got the mental equivalent of that little spinning wheel thing that you see with "buffering." In other words: uhhh. Been awhile.

This summer, I participated in something that was really FUN. And although it was related to art, not writing (or perhaps because of that fact), I feel more playful in my writing, too.

What did I do? Index Card a Day: invented, managed, organized, and curated (and copyrighted) by Tammy Garcia over at DaisyYellowArt.com.

The idea is that you somehow "decorate" an index card (either 3 X 5 or 4 X 6) per day, every day, starting June 1 and ending July 31. That's 61 days in which you take 5 or 15 or 65 minutes and cover the surface of an index card.

* Nothing more precious--index cards are inexpensive--and nothing more ambitious. (That said, nobody's stopping you from doing other stuff if you have time or want to!)
* The result doesn't have to be pretty or art (whatever that means); it doesn't have to "work." The point is to create something every day for 61 days in a row. Process, not product.
* Use highlighters, acrylic paints, makeup, watercolor, pen, pencil. Sew, glue, draw, paint, staple, whatever.
* Tammy provides prompts and suggests  media, but you don't have to use them.
* There's a Facebook group to share your images if you want (I opted not to in order to keep the "fun" element alive and well for myself, though I shared them daily with my sister for the sake of accountability), and people were on Twitter, too.

My sister has always created beautiful artwork: she draws (recently Zentangles, but she was drawing wee illustrated books for me for car trips back in the 1960s), she hand-makes books, she's made jewelry (both from purchased beads and from beads she made with polymer clay, pysanky, hand-tatted lace, note cards, halter tops (this was the 70s), and embroidered pillows. Among other things.

As for me, well. I like pretty colors, and I have taken a drawing class, and I've thrown pots (which was also really fun in a wordless way), but really I'm a writer. So I went into this without any pretense of "art."

Here's proof! One of my images: crayon resist w/ watercolors. It's more or less supposed to look like birch bark (and the photo is from my iTouch and I was wearing a pink shirt, so colors are approximate).



Anyway, the POINT of all of this is that I haven't had this much fun in I don't know how long. Being the rule-follower that I am, I deliberately let myself/forced myself to NOT follow ANY rules and so I did lots of index cards--collections and books of them. (I bought 300 and used roughly 250.) I compiled drawing done in the evenings when I was too tired to do anything more productive than drool in front of the TV (lots of pages of vaguely flower-shaped objects, as well as a series of lines in different colors); they became a three-dimensional "garden" and background images for other days. Early on, I had a light-bulb moment and "went outside the lines" of the index card horizontal space. Soon, I started building stuff out of index cards, too.

Lots of them turned out to contain writing advice from me to me: follow your own path, small fruit is still fruit, success is in/spiration (as from rain) per/spiration (from growing). Some even didn't have words! Like they're actual, real art! Here's one of my favorites:


That's ancient black elastic from my sewing box, duct tape "flowers", centers and leaves made from paint chips, over a card with designs meant to resemble storm clouds and wet weather, and cellophane at the top (remember how when you were a kid, "sky" was a blue strip at the top of the page?), with staples as "design elements" representing rain. This was one I did after a few others relating to "grow," and I was so excited about making the flowers (plaid duct tape! circles! then cut so that they have petal-looking bits!) that I had a hard time sleeping.

And yes, I wrote a lot this summer, too. I have been a little all over the place with it, rather like the gardens here after they get growing. Connections I might have missed before! Words! Thoughts of reasonable coherence! Words accumulating under fingers and under the tip of a pen! Green, growing, nutritious!

That has been the best part of all: that the fun I had decorating one little card a day for 61 days is spilling over into my writing.

So if you, too, just see that little spinning wheel when you think about "having fun" with your creative work, consider a bit of structured play in a medium that's not your primary one. Here's a link to what ICAD was all about. The 2014 ICAD-a-palooza is over, but mark your calendar for next year. For reals. And Tammy has a lot of other goodies going on over at Daisy Yellow, too.

Now all I have to do is quit collecting collage materials...


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Careful Reading

Words, words, and so many more words. Getting them in the right order. Difficult to "stay on task"  (= persevere) on sullen, fickle summer days.

Therefore, go there and read this.

Aimee Bender explicates what writers can learn from the Margaret Wise Brown classic, Goodnight Moon, here. "Yes, move around in a structure. But also float out of that structure." That, and she contemplates the ending. Endings = tricky. But: persevere.
Monday, July 21, 2014

Visitors in the Guest Room

As you may have guessed from the post about wallpaper in the guest room and my absence from this URL, two important things have happened: we have guests and the sun has finally come out.

Before the guests, though, and before summer consented to hang around for awhile, a bird gave me a framework in which to write about my frustration. Today that writing appears on River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, at their Beautiful Things blog. You can read it here.

And I highly recommend the blog in general, especially if you're personally sad or grouchy, or if world events threaten to pull you down into hopelessness. I've found that each entry reminds me to look for the beauty in a moment, even (especially) in a moment of difficulty.
Friday, June 27, 2014

The Great Wallpaper Adventure

Because houseguests are expected in two weeks--that's why/when you undertake a "reno" of the guest room that could have been done at any time in the previous six years. Well, "re-do" is more appropriate than "reno": no walls came down. But plenty of wallpaper did. And then paint went up on the walls (and dirt and crud came up from the carpet).

Turns out, you get lots of "thinking time" when your face is two inches from the wall for three full days. The main thing was a reminder of the 80/20 rule: The first 80 percent of the labor is completed in 20 percent of the time; the remaining 20 percent of the labor requires 80 percent of the time.

The first layer of wallpaper peels right off. Much of the underlayer comes off with a little more work. Here you're at 80% of the project but only 20% of the time. Getting all those ticky bits off (the last 20% of the removal) takes a water bottle sprayer, a scraper, and long-haul upper body strength (slow-twitch muscles rule).

Similarly, the first bit of "painting the wall" is relatively easy. Finding and adequately covering the places where the pink bleeds through, determining how/where/whether a second coat is needed and applying it--that kind of picky ticky work also takes a surprising amount of time.

Good writing can be similar in time: drafting is fine, but it creates something that's...just fine. It's the work you put in to get a product that's more than "just fine" that takes time. Time well spent.

The best part: having a finished product you can be proud of.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I Will Not Be Cold

Thursday morning was cool, with precipitation ranging from mist to downpour. I wore layers to my yoga class, forgetting that truism of weather--being in a car is warmer than being outdoors, even when there's no sun. Plus, my body thermostat likes to jump around at times. Let's just say that all in all I was plenty warm on the drive in.

When I got to class, I dove for the spot in back row in front of the open window, thrilled that it (the spot, as well as the window) was still open. The teacher offered to close the window if I were cold, but I said, "Oh, no; I'm hot and like the breeze." She suggested I wear a blanket as a shawl for the beginning part of the class, while we do the sit/center-ourselves part, because I wouldn't be moving around. Fine.

So I was readying myself for class, blanket and all, and another woman in class said, "You're going to be so cold if she doesn't close that window."

I said, "Uh, no, I'm fine. In fact, I enjoy the open window. I'm warm."

"Oh, no, you'll be freezing."

I didn't say anything else, but I was pretty sure a. I wouldn't be cold and 2. if I were I would be able to speak up and/or close the window and iii. maybe this other woman was the one who was cold.

There followed a round-robin discussion among the other students and the teacher, with no one owning up to wanting the window closed, until finally a woman said, "Could it be partway closed?" and I thought hallelujah.

I was reminded of the incident again on Friday in relation to an ongoing frustration I have with my own fiction. I'm really good at getting people, er, characters, to sit around a table drinking coffee and saying what this story is about.

But in real life, people often don't "own" how they feel or what they want--and it's even more rare when they say it. Whether they're prevented by politeness or habit (or maybe it really is an intense desire to annoy me), they just don't. People often don't say what they really think, or want, or need. I'm repeating that because I forget, though I'm sure I do it myself, too.

That Goldilocks sure knew when something was too hot or too cold. Fortunately, the yoga class itself was worthy of Baby Bear: just right.
Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Facebook: Lessons in Connecting and in Enough

This year I'm learning about connecting, and I'm learning when enough is enough. And participating in the wacky world of Facebook has helped me learn a little of both.

Connecting

1. On Facebook, I'm connected to
* people I don't really remember from high school,
* people I didn't know well in high school,
* people who are friends with my siblings,
* children of people who know my siblings,
* my parents' former students (and their children and grandchildren),
* people my parents once knew professionally,
* people I once knew well but am geographically distant from,
* people I never knew well but felt a connection to when we shared geography or interests,
* and various categories of people I've never met in real life (many of them writers).
* Oh, and people I call/ed friends back before Facebook.
* And acquaintances in real life.
Many of these kinds of connections are equivalent to walking down the hall in high school saying "hi" to people you vaguely know. Which is great. Plennnnty, in fact, much of the time.

2. Conversations on Facebook can be interesting, especially when people take the time to think about what they're saying and don't use someone's news feed like an instant message. But boy that LIKE button is also handy: it says "I see you over here saying something" quickly; a sort of "yep but gotta go" or "great; glad to hear it" equivalent. It's pretty easy to register the fact that people are having a political or religious discussion and tiptoe past. And I wouldn't survive elections if it weren't for the HIDE function.

3. People, however well you know them, respond with enthusiasm when your comment is about THEM and THEIR interest in a photo/video/quote/observation/status. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people are less interested when you post a photo of YOURSELF in your comment on the item they've shared--even if it's related. (NB this is also true in real life, which I keep forgetting. I keep thinking that people who say "what do you think?" really want to know.) People also enjoy POSITIVE comments, not comments that are dismissive--like "duh" or "ohhh-kay." Why even go to the trouble to share that? Go be cooler than thou on your own news feed.

Enough (is enough is enough...when?)

1. None of the really useful things I'm learning about connecting to people are ENOUGH reason to spend time on Facebook that I'd rather spend doing creative, productive, contemplative, or gustatory things.

2. Sometimes connection through Facebook really is ENOUGH connection with any particular individual--and sometimes a couple of check-ins on Facebook provide me with nearly ENOUGH human contact for an entire day (though it's hard to measure because my husband is also home writing or gloating being retired).

3. And sometimes virtual connections really AREN'T enough. So I also must remember to be with real people in real life, and remember #3 above. I'm getting better about scheduling ENOUGH of that sort of connection, but that's always a work in progress.

But enough about people and electronics. Time to go outdoors and connect with the mallards, snowshoe hares, ravens, blue jays, birches (achoo), balsams, and mud. I already know that none of them care what I think about anything!
Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Outsides: Bespoke (Glamour was earlier)

AsI said last time, I’ve been away for a short vacation. On the way home, two issues of Glamour magazine kept me company. Long story short: I used to subscribe but stopped, and I didn’t realize how much I had missed it until that day of travel.

Then when I got home, I dove back into reading books, and had a similar experience—I got to learn about something I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be interested in. The book in question: The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son, and a Suit, by JJ Lee.

(Aside: as I’ve mentioned, I am doing this project in which I’m reading all the books we have before buying more. Book club books, and books I am reading for a specific project, are exempt. Which is how I justified reading this one. JJ Lee judged a contest I helped administer, and I had seen an excerpt of his book in a magazine but hadn’t read it. So I finally did.)

Which brings us to the concept of “bespoke”: Someone measures you and creates a suit pattern (and later a suit from that pattern, from cloth that is YOURS) for YOUR body, with all its unique qualities. The pattern isn’t altered from existing forms. Roughly, the bespoke suit is the male equivalent of haute couture in female fashion. Waaay out of my experience, in other words.

In his book, Lee weaves together several threads (haha, sorry):

* A memoir of his youth and adolescence in a turbulent household with an alcoholic father, which encompasses some of the ambivalence the children of immigrants feel toward their parents
* The story of one of his father’s suits, which he wants to alter in some way to make it his own
* A fair amount of the history of men’s fashion (fascinating)
* The story of his own apprenticeship to tailors to help him learn what he needs to know (skills and emotionally) to alter the suit

It’s masterfully done, and Lee’s voice and self-deprecating honesty make him a cheerful companion.

Here’s my favourite quote:
I still believe fashion matters. It matters to people not because they care about what someone in Paris or New York has to say about what they should wear next season, nor because they think what models and Hollywood starlets wear is vital to their happiness. Fashion matters because every day people get up in the morning and, with the palette of clothes they find in their closets and dressers, they attempt to create a visual poem about a part of themselves they wish to share with the world.


I love the idea of a “visual poem” and also the idea of choosing to share part of one’s self.

We all present faces to the world. Some of us have bigger closets and dressers than others. We use different rules of thumb to guide our decisions—comfort (texture, temperature, fit), obedience, decorum, proximity, cleanliness, colour, shock value, uniformity, plain old availability—sometimes choosing different effects on different days. What we present can be close to who we are (or who we think we are), or it can be completely at odds with the person we consider to be who we really are.

I tend to forget about physical appearance. I work and write from home, and our house is in the country. In winter months, I can go several days—sometimes a week or more—without seeing a single human being I’m not married to.

But it’s (finally) spring. I’ll be out among people more often. I’ll be visible; I’ll be interacting more often. It’s good to be reminded of the physical and symbolic purposes of clothing. And a bonus that it was such a pleasant experience.

Well done, JJ Lee. Thank you for sharing your story.
Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Outsides: Glamour (and, later, Bespoke)

Glamour as in the magazine.

I'm just back from a short time away, and I had the opportunity to read two issues of Glamour on two airplanes. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't be so generous--I wouldn't leave the issue with the Lena Dunham cover(s) for another lucky passenger. Yep. I'd keep it. I'd hoard it. (Eventually I'd send it to recycle, and I know that, so that's more or less why I left it.)

My sister gave me the issues of the magazine; she'd received them as a promotional incentive for something-or-other. I wouldn't have bought them myself; it would never have occurred to me. I'm completely out of the habit of browsing magazine racks. But ye gods, what a serendipitous find they were!

See, Glamour and I go way back. It kept me company from my mid-high school years through my mid-30s or so. I loved it for SO many reasons:

* For giving me a glimpse into an idealized version of urban life, chock-full of freelancers, public relations specialists, nonprofit administrators, and financial managers.

* For smart essays--by which I mean "a reliably feminist voice," not an easy find in the middle of the country--on political issues of the day.

* For advice columns about working, including where, why, doing what, what you'd be wearing, and how to change your skills or your situation if you don't like it. How to ask for a raise. How to find out what other people in your job are making. That "professional organizations" even exist, and even why you should belong to them.

And other reasons: For profiles of women who are exceptional. For the information that some people consider $100 a reasonable price to pay for jeans. And, of course, for the Glamour Don't.

I outgrew it. In today-speak, it ceased to resonate with me. But time has passed. ("Children get older, and I'm gettin' older too....") The magazine today is different, of course--different features, different discussions, different price points on cosmetics. Still, the Glamour personality remains upbeat yet serious--smart and challenging and approachable. Leafing through its pages was like having a conversation with a young woman you used to babysit but haven't seen in years, and being delighted at her wit, poise, intelligence, and humor.

Oh Glamour, I missed you. You were a great seatmate on this trip. Thanks so much, and I'll be in touch: I have one more issue to read and I'm saving it for a time when I need to be reminded of my past and cheered up about the future.

Next time: Bespoke. Yes, as in fashion and tailoring.
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Tre: What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part1: Why I did it.

Part2: A few lessons from the process.

Part 3. Would I do it again?

Yes.

I enjoyed the feeling of learning something. Reading some of these articles is like going to a dinner party and getting into the BEST conversation. Someone else has done a bunch of research and you get the most interesting tidbits. Other people’s enthusiasm is catching. This world is a fascinating place.

I enjoyed getting through a bunch of back issues—a diminishing To Be Read pile; a growing Recycle pile. When many of your activities recur often (dishes, laundry, meals) and the important stuff feels as if moves at a glacial pace, (essays, stories), it’s nice to be doing something with visible progress.

No.

The time I spent reading books (for pleasure) fell off drastically during this time. I’m in a couple of book clubs, so I made time to read those books (which is why I had to catch up a little on the magazines nearly every weekend). But I didn’t read other than that during those six weeks. I missed it. I like short stories, but I like a good novel, and I have several of those in my To-Be-Read pile, too.

I read a lot as part of my work, especially lately. I’m in a research-intensive time for one project, plus I have several revisions on the go, which require reading and mulling and rewriting. I enjoy reading, but sometimes at the end of the day I really didn’t want to spend time with some other writer’s words.

Bottom Line: Maybe. 

But I’d recommend this project or something similar as an exercise in discipline. And I like the feeling of working on a project. And hey, May is Short Story Month in some parts of the continent. Hmm, is that a new project?



Monday, May 5, 2014

Deux: What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part 2: How I defined “read” and other lessons of content.

Last time I wrote a little about a project I finished during Lent this year: reading an issue of The New Yorker every weekday. Here’s a follow-up.

By way of defining the term “read,” I’ll be honest: I didn’t read every word. I knew it wouldn’t make sense to commit to reading every single word of every issue. So I went in with some expectations around what I would and would not read.

At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld and his known/unknown knowns/unknowns, here’s how that shook out.

Some pieces I knew I’d read, and I did. For example, I read all the short stories (though I didn’t enjoy them all). The fiction is, after all, one of the main reasons I get the magazine in the first place. And then I knew I’d also read articles about writing, especially anything by John McPhee. In fact, anything by John McPhee, regardless of topic.

Some pieces I knew I would NOT read, and I didn’t. I skipped nearly everything about politics in the issues from 2005 and 2006. I skipped much about US healthcare reform (hooray for Canada), coverage of the New York mayoral races (I don’t live there), restaurant/movie/show reviews (ditto). Yes, all the tiny print stuff in the front.

Some pieces I that I thought I MIGHT read, and I did. I know my own tastes and could predict the kinds of things I would find interesting: Profiles of many politicians, judges, and writers; of drugs and drug companies; of physicians and scientists and mysterious diseases. Even, or especially, people I’d never heard of: fashion designers, chefs, and other artists. Reviews of books—the short ones especially, but nearly all of the longer ones, too.

And then I developed favorite writers. To “the writer for The New Yorker that everyone in Canada has heard of,” Malcolm Gladwell, and “the writer for the New Yorker that everyone in Oklahoma pretends to have known in high school,” Burkhardt Bilger, I added some other names: off the top of my head, Ryan Lizza, Adam Gopnik, Jill Lepore. I was already a fan of Atul Gawande’s insight into healthcare (a notable exception to my previous list of subject-matter exceptions) and the benefits of checklists and coaching. I will always at least attempt to read what these people have to say about topics they find interesting.

Some pieces I thought I would NOT read, and didn’t. I have a hard time working up energy for pieces on crime, crime bosses, gambling, and talented addicted people who are attempting comeback. Also, I yawn over analyses of “today’s media landscape” or “publishing”; I’m not that interested in bugs and snakes. To my shame, I have a limited capacity to read about active wars, though I did attempt to read more of these articles than I thought I would. And I tend to steer away from “profile of life/literature in [country with a description that includes the words “former Soviet,” “war torn,” “in the wake of,” or “massacre”].” Some of these limits I feel worse about than others. Some of these limits I tried harder to overcome than others—but I went in knowing I wouldn’t read all of these pieces.

And finally, one of the main reasons to read The New Yorker: pieces I didn’t think I’d read but I did, and with complete enjoyment. In a couple of cases, they were articles that later became books; I read some excerpts or reviews of books that are on my “to buy” list. Sometimes, I overcame an antipathy or ignorance (such as never having seen “Breaking Bad”) to read an actor profile. I asked myself, “What could there be to say about panda reproduction?” and found the answer: Lots of fascinating stuff, turns out. Did you know that death certificates were, in a sense, invented? Me neither. A company in China is doing work on the human genome under some slightly different ethical assumptions than those prevalent in the U.S., you might (not) be interested to know.

One of the side benefits was the in-depth exposure to ways people structure their articles. Always beneficial to see how they’re done well (which is why I’m also a fan of Nieman Storyboard and their “Why is this so good?” feature).

Would I do it again? Hmmm. I’ll get back to you.



And I should make this plain: This reading project wasn't the equivalent of a religious or spiritual discipline. I don't mean to make light of those who find meaning in Lenten sacrifice or spiritual learning, or of their practices. I'm just sharing what I did and why, and its value.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014

What I learned from reading a copy of The New Yorker every day (except weekends) during Lent in 2014

Part 1 (of maybe 3?): Why I did it. 

I’m not a big traditionalist when it comes to Lent. Observing some discipline—giving up something or even adopting a healthy or positive habit—ranks at about the same place as making resolutions at the end of December. I’m more likely to observe either custom if I already have something in mind that I want to do.

This year, as I was taking stock for my “I want to read everything in my house before bringing new things in” project, I noticed I have a lot of back issues of The New Yorker. My sister bequeathed some of them to us in 2005 or so, when she was subscribing; we nabbed others in our book club’s “white elephant” gift exchange a couple of Christmases ago. I also have a current subscription, a gift from my brother. Although I read a lot (in both its “often” and “quantity” senses), I can’t keep up.

It would be possible, in theory—if I were someone else entirely—to simply recycle issues, new and old, without reading them. But you know, each issue has a short story. And I write short stories, and I like to read them, and these are “free,” having been paid for already. Add to that the incentive of all the rest of the articles: lots of interesting nonfiction! So, me being me, ditch an issue unread? Not possible. (One can transcend only so much of one's upbringing. Maybe.)

Ash Wednesday: here we go. I made some ground rules.

* Read one issue a day, but only weekdays, because weekends were for catching up.
* Choose each day’s issue at random. Because I was self-conscious about all the structure I was imposing on this project already, I introduced an element of surprise! The issues were in a giant stack that had been moved a few times, so the chronology was mixed, and I drew from the middle, top, or bottom, as the spirit moved me. Not mathematically random but not bad for a devotee of order.
Finish each issue before starting the next. If an issue had an article relevant to my nonfiction project, I marked the article, read the rest of the issue, and then put that issue with the other materials for that project to read carefully later.
* Repeat for 33 days (Ash Wednesday through Good Friday).

And that’s it! It was a great learning experience, both in terms of content from the articles and from the experience itself. 

What made this project work well for me now was the “random” element. Because I didn't read issues in any sequence, I was never tempted to search for follow-up letters about an article. Although it would have been interesting to see who had critiqued what (if anything) about a particular article, I didn’t want to take that time. Bad if serious scholarship had been the purpose of this project, but good since finishing was important.

Naturally, because I am also human and gaming systems is human nature, “choosing at random” became “pick a thin one, not one of the perfect-bound double issues,” which I also decided was okay.

And Happy Easter, I did it! I didn’t actually read a full issue each day. At one point, I read Friday’s issue on Sunday night, having powered through two others that same weekend. But usually I didn’t have more than one issue to read on a weekend.

So now I have 33 issues to recycle in some way. A few issues I’m saving for specific purposes; others will leave the house in some manner. And later, I’ll share more about specific things I learned from the project.

But at the moment, two snowshoe hares, with colouring somewhere between winter white and summer brown, are eating breakfast on our front walkway. A true sign of spring, calling me to watch.
Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making Sense of Making Sense (of Alzheimer's)



Mosaic, a science publication for the (UK's) Wellcome Trust, recently published a narrative summary by Michael Regnier about Alzheimer's and research. Here's the link (and check out the resources listed at the bottom, too).

Aside from my ongoing interest in Alzheimer's (links to my personal essays "Home" and "All I Can Say" are on this page), the article is interesting because of the way it's written: It uses detective fiction as a frame. Here's a link to a description of the writing process.

Fascinating stuff, for so many reasons. As Regnier says in his "how I wrote this" extra, it's hard to imagine a time when detective fiction didn't exist.

A semi-disturbing element of the story (not its main focus): the nature of competition in scientific research, and the fallout thereof.

The idealistic side of me wants to believe that competition in science is somehow "pure" and disinterested--that all involved are working for the best interests of patients and caregivers and families. However, my practical side acknowledges the reality: of course money is part of the story. Slowing the disease process, to say nothing of finding a way to "cure" or prevent it, apparently requires drugs. Drugs = money. Research projects, whether basic or applied, also cost money. Money, a finite resource that must be allocated in some way.

Also, researchers have to "eat and heat." Some marry and raise families. They have parents who fail and need their care; some, in turn, become parents who fail.

Sometimes I picture a lab tech grabbing a sandwich at what should have been the end of her shift but isn't because processing an extra batch of samples each shift means getting results that much earlier...
which lets her lab meet an earlier publication deadline
which helps secure an extra $100K in research funding
which produces results leading to a collaborative project with a drug company
and maybe just maybe it's THIS drug that proves effective.

And because she's a numbers person as well as a people person, the disease statistics--millions of people with the disease, each of whom has family, all of whom are waiting for good news--may haunt that lab tech.

So I hope she thinks of us, when she thinks of us, not as suffering people in need of her pity, nor as impatient family members wishing someone would do something.

Instead, I hope she recognizes we're a giant cheering section, urging her on.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Experiments

Lately, I've been expressing my inner scientist. I've been doing experiments!

While clearing out a storage area, I found one of those amaryllis bulbs you sprout indoors. I remembered vaguely buying it as a gift and losing track of it in the "clean up for Christmas" rush. What I couldn't remember was how many Christmases ago that had been. So rather than throw it out, I stuck the bulb in the dirt, put it in the sun, watered it, and waited.

This morning, I poured the remains of "maple" "syrup" into a red plastic dish and set it out on the snowbank near the bush (or rather, where bush will grow in a couple of months). We've seen bunny and squirrel tracks there and fox tracks elsewhere recently. We don't like the syrup, and rather than throw it out, I thought I'd see if anyone else likes it.

For the first months of 2014, I've been hunkered down working on long-term projects. As April came around, I felt restless--many other ideas were pushing at me. And because they were so respectful in requesting my attention, I listened. I've carved out a little time here and there to piddle with those ideas. And the rest of the time, I'm hunkered down with those other projects, still.

So sure, the bulb was a non-starter. Not a huge surprise. We threw it out when we were cleaning up for company. And if it happens that nobody in the animal world enjoys this poor excuse for syrup, oh well. Might as well have a little fun before throwing stuff out. Plus, negative results are information--next time, I won't wait so long to plant the bulb; next time, I will examine the syrup in the checkout cart more carefully.

That's the attitude I'm trying to take to these smaller, sorta different writing projects. I'm not even sure what the equivalent of "negative results" would be--perhaps listening and experimenting in this way would no longer be fun. In any case, the point is to do the writing. Who knows what these pieces might grow into. Perhaps their only purpose is to be written, and if so, that's more than okay, too.

I don't know the outcome--I'm not supposed to know. That's why scientists call it an "experiment." And artists call it "creating" or even "playing." And both groups think it's "fun." As do I.
Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Concessions

Last time I was out skiing, several weeks ago now, I wrenched my knee. My usual form of recuperating from something like that--ignoring it till it goes away--hasn't helped. Shocking, I know! I'm now deliberately and safely walking and doing a few select and gentle exercises to ensure that my leg muscles heal and strengthen. Skiing is finished for the season, for me--even if we again find that sweet spot of enough snow and warm enough yet cool enough temperatures.

And bonus: now that the sun is up for 12 hours a day, the roads are clearing. Often, I can walk at a challenging pace without fear of twisting my ankle (which I did in November) or falling (ditto). Even today, after yesterday's dump of ice and snow, I will be able to get out and get moving.

When I'm outdoors these days, I no longer fret about wearing too many layers. I don't care if I appear gnarly or girly (go girls!); I don't care if others might say I'm "overdressed." I will wear enough to keep me warm--and top it with a layer of wind protection, even if I don't strictly "need" it. The ends of my fingers and toes thank me when I protect them adequately, and when I'm warm and the gloves are no longer necessary for the return trip--well, that's what pockets are for.

My point is this: the more I can let go of how I think I "should" be able to interact with winter in my (gently) aging body, the more I can respond to reality. And here are several of those realities: I like having warm fingers and toes; I have to take the vitamins instead of just buying them; things don't heal when you ignore them; conscious attention to exercise is necessary because just running around isn't enough; the weather is what it is and I can either shake my fist at it or enjoy it however I can.

Call my responses "concessions" if you will. I call them "how I make the best of the latest Spring I've ever experienced." And yes, these concessions are metaphors for writing: all I can control is what I do. So I write. I revise (and revise and revise some more). I submit. I live and read and love and gripe and laugh and eat and exercise and meditate. And I write.
Wednesday, March 19, 2014

So...Hum

In an effort to increase the time I spend "being" (and okay, also increase my effectiveness at "doing" things)*, I've done some new things lately, where "lately" means "in the past six months or so." Last fall, I signed up for a yoga class (here's a link to Mayama's blog!). Late in the year, I started a meditation practice. (Hence the "so/hum"--one of the ways I focus when I meditate.)

"Meditation practice" is an awfully fancy-sounding descriptor for sitting cross-legged on the floor trying to not look at the clock, but it's actually accurate. I'm practicing. And there is no performance; no future time at which I'll be capital-M Meditating. This time, this session of practice is all there is. 

Same with the yoga class--it's a dedicated space at which I do what my body can do right there, in that moment. I don't think about what I do today that's different from any other day. 

And it's surprisingly difficult to do/be these things. I was a competitive swimmer; I've written about health and fitness. I know that maintaining aerobic fitness requires pushing yourself to do more on a fairly consistent basis, as your body adapts to the "new normal" abilities you're creating. 

It's also hard to not feel that sense of impatience around writing. Sure, I've done that thing, but that was yesterday; what's tomorrow? I "should" be more accomplished in some way, writing better/faster/more, with more uniqueness/acclaim/recognition/buck$$$. 

One of the most difficult parts of freelance writing has been figuring out my own career ladder--and, in fact, I'm not sure I've ever managed to do that. The easiest ways to determine success are through measurement: numbers, as in income or number of publications. Twitter followers, blog subscribers, Klout scores, book sales, advance $, royaltie$--all of those things are numbers, and therefore they can increase (yay! success!) or decrease (boo! failure!). But...they're only numbers. They measure only part of the picture of writing (and life and work) that's important to me. 

As an experiment, I've been applying some of the whole "be here now" life approach to specific activities around writing. Now, as I sit with a particular story or essay; I ask different questions. Instead of "where would I send this?" or "how can I make this more _____?" I try asking, "What can this story be?" It sounds a little hocus-pocus to my traditional, mainstream mind, but still: I try to meet the writing on its own terms. Maybe this writing is "just for fun." Maybe it's still a jumble and needs another rest before the best revision strategy presents itself. Maybe it's ready to meet the world, though I'm nervous about the content.

And sure, I still submit pieces. I still have external goals--easily measurable things like grants or publication in specific journals. But even as I pursue those goals I try to celebrate what I have control over--writing the best work I can, submitting the best excerpt or proposal, completing the best writing I can at any given time. 

I don't have answers, but I have a practice. And just having one means I'm successful! Yay!

I've written before about "being a writer" vs. "doing the writing." This is different. 
Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Pleasant Surprise

Definitely Superior, an artist-run collective based in Thunder Bay, recently launched the anthology Fuel under its burning.books.press imprint.

In it, I have a creative nonfiction piece entitled "Go to a Deaf Event." Visually, it's a poem but it's actually nonfiction. I wrote it in late 2009 and I didn't really think about it again until I saw it in the anthology.

Reading it was a (gasp) pleasant surprise--I remember pushing against "creative nonfiction" forms during the writing process. And remembering a time when you were excited about learning something is almost as much fun as the learning itself. (Almost.)

Here's a link to a version that retains the proper formatting of American Sign Language terms.

Best of luck to DefSup and burning.books.press!
Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When is it too late...

to send Christmas cards? I'm only half-kidding.

For various reasons (including freak holiday ice storms in Toronto), we celebrated Christmas twice--once around December 25, and another time around January 15. I had to gear up for 2014 all over again in late January. (But it was great to see people during the holidays--totally worth it.)

In any case, we never got the cards sent. Even though "sending cards" now means "insert link in Facebook status to holiday letter in Dropbox; send link in email about 20 others; send a dozen actual cards to aunts, uncles, and cousins (some in foreign countries)."

While I have dithered quietly about whether to do something about the cards, I've been thinking a little about that feeling of "too late!" and its present-tense version, "time's running out!"

Now that I'm approaching middle age (or have passed my quarter-life crisis, assuming I live to be, like, 200), my peers often say some version of this: "I want to get my work out there. I don't have time to wait around on the traditional publishing process." And I do understand that urge. Lots of people are indie-publishing their work and finding satisfaction in immediately reaching readers. More power to you guys! Yay!

I understand the urgency, but I personally don't feel urgency around publishing. Instead, I feel urgent about my ability, or lack therof, to revise drafts well. To craft the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, I feel capable of telling.

So here's a math formula: for a completed story draft D, there exists an unknown time T after the completion of D during which R (revision) approaches maximum values of E-squared (efficiency and effectiveness).

In non-math words, there's an optimal amount of time to wait after you write a first draft of a story before you even attempt to revise it. During this time period, your ability to revise that story--to tell it in the way it deserves to be told--increases. Assuming you're still developing writing skill, that is. Eventually at the end of this unknown time T, you can revise the story effectively and do it with a minimum amount of faffing about. (I should add the faffing about variable F to the equation.)

(Note that in various work settings, this time is short. You can't let an annual report ripen for six months--for one thing, it doesn't need it. For another, if it's going to be at all useful to you, it has to be timely. It's this lack of time for revision in work settings that created in me a false sense of "I don't need to revise." Which is true for some tasks, but not so much for the kinds of stories I really want to tell. Hey, wait a sec: aren't Christmas Cards sort of like annual reports? Sigh.)

Anyway. I've been solving for T, this unknown variable, for several years in my creative writing life. I like to think that my value for T is decreasing, that I'm getting better at estimating this "put it away and let the story ripen," "put it away and develop your skills," "put it away and let your unconscious work on it" time and then revising effectively when I start.

Of course I know the whole writing/revision process is imprecise, and I'm kind of kidding about the formula, especially the "maximum efficiency and effective" part. Kind of, because this is where I do feel urgency: I want to produce the best work I can, so that when it appears (note: "when" because I want that, too) I can be proud of it. Setting a novel aside for 10 years, coming back to spend 5 more years on it...yeah, that kind of time I'm not sure I have.

When it comes to Christmas cards, I'm not kidding at all. It may be "too late" according to someone else's value of T, but we'll send them. They'll be March 1 cards. Even though it's been a quiet year. Because keeping connected to friends and relatives is a Good Thing.

But for the urge to publish--no urgency there, not yet. I want to revise until I'm sure that I've done right by the story, and I want to learn to revise better. So, off I go.
Friday, February 14, 2014

Spreadsheet? Check!

A little late, but last week I did finally set up the spreadsheet for my Book Tracking Project (read more about that here). I have a little more data entry to do, but basically it's done and seems to be capturing what I want it to capture.

My focus now will be to pull together the to-be-read pile into closer proximity. And read! And report back periodically.

So far, giving myself the "out" of book club books is helping. Having two library books available, in addition to the existing to-be-read pile, kept the "read the books you already have" part from feeling too claustrophobic. Yet I am also still reading the books I already have. Which is fabulous.

I don't yet have enough books to take to the library book sale. But I know where those books are, and that's progress!
Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Name Is ...

Recently I'm reading more nonfiction (yes, even with resolutions to read what I already own because guess what? I own a lot of nonfiction), and I'm connecting with more "nature writers" on Twitter.

Aside: why do I dislike the term "nature writer"? It feels pejorative--dismissive. I prefer to think that a writer is a writer is a writer, and people who specialize in essays and fiction about the natural world are writers. The added specificity isn't necessary.

Hello! And suddenly what started as an aside is part of the point of this blog post. Because taxonomy--naming something, calling it by an established and recognized name--is important. (To me.) Yet recently, this lovely blog post by Melissa Harrison, a writer in the UK whose novel came out last year and who blogs about nature (among other things), has made me reconsider. Specifically, this part:

"Taxonomy is not an essential part of connecting with nature--far from it. Some people actively prefer not to put names to the living things around them, seeing it as an act of domination that creates distance, rather than closeness."

Since I moved to rural Thunder Bay, I've made learning the names of trees, animals, and birds an explicit part of the process of feeling at home, an early part of learning to be a worthy steward of this place. And it's an ongoing process--currently I'm trying to decide whether that thing we see occasionally is a wolf or coyote, a bobcat or lynx, a raven or crow. In winter, I get to figure out what's around by its tracks, which is its own kind of fun. Plus in summers we're seeing new kinds of waterfowl: teal and goldeneye in the past couple of years. For me, being able to distinguish between mallards and mergansers, or knowing whether that spot out there is a loon or a gull, remains important.

But now I'm also wondering about the drawbacks that come with my "need to name." As Melissa points out, assigning a name (or telling a story about an experience) gives the namer or teller a kind of power over the named or the experience. In the case of a story, that power might be positive. In the case of separating name from namer, perhaps not so much. And right up there is my discomfort with "nature writer": adding a specific descriptor to a general name is often unnecessary and can be belittling.

More pondering, and lots of reading of thoughtful writing, ahead.
Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When It Snows, It...Blizzards?

Lots of fun opportunities have come my way recently! And, as is often the case, several have appeared at once.

Last night, I read from a new-ish short story. The reading series, sponsored by NOWW (Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop), is supported by the Ontario Arts Council, which also supported the work I was reading. The night was cold (minus a million in F and C) and the attendance somewhat more sparse than usual, but the listeners who did turn out were warm in their appreciation. So thanks, NOWW and OAC and all those who came out!

Speaking of NOWW, it publishes a magazine several times a year that includes writing, member news--and this month, the annual contest rules  (deadline March 15; entry fee $10) with information about the awesome judges: Ania Szado (fiction), Robert J. Sawyer (speculative fiction), JJ Lee (creative nonfiction), and Roger Nash (poetry).

The upcoming issue of NOWW Magazine also features one of my essays, and some wintry photos my husband and I have taken. I appreciate the opportunity to get my work in front of the NOWW membership!

And seriously, the NOWW contest--what if one of these stellar writers had the opportunity to read YOUR work? Wouldn't that be amazing? You should enter!
Friday, January 17, 2014

Because I Need Another Project

But this time, I really do, and I was kinda doing it anyway.

The full title of this new project is "Books: Where do they come from, where do they go, and why do we have so many?"

Part 1. One activity for this project is tracking the books I read. I've been doing this since 1996, just writing them down on paper I keep in my Filofax. Actually, I started before 1996 but my Filofax was stolen in 1996 and I started over again. From this exercise I have discovered that I generally read (mostly for pleasure) 25 to 30 books in a year. For what that's worth. I recognize that this activity doesn't correspond exactly to "where do they come from," but it is a measure of reality--whatever I plan when I buy a book, this list shows what I actually read.

Part 2. The second part of this project is tracking where books go when they leave this house. I've been slowly but surely culling the bookshelves--selecting from the books I moved here from Colorado nearly 10 years ago, the books I brought from my parents' house in 2007 after my father's death (blessedly few of those), and those that I/we get here--and donating them to the public library.

Through years of practice, culling has become easier, though it's still difficult. I did a huge cull back in Colorado when I ditched lots of the lit I bought for my undergraduate and graduate degrees (Dickens, Faulker [which hurt, so I kept some], Twain, random Gilded Age novels, the Brontes, seventeenth-century British Lit, modern British Lit, and other anthologies) with the justification that so much of that is available at the public library (and now online). I'm glad I did, but I still kept books that I don't need to own now.*

And most of the time, I haven't missed a single one of the books that has left our home. However, recently I ordered two books from a specific publisher by way of research. I kept one. I think the other went to the Friends of the Library, but I'm not sure--and now someone I know has expressed interest in reading it. Of course. But that's the first time anything like that has happened.

The new element of this part is inspired by Vicki Ziegler, aka @bookgaga. She has outlined a "book tracking" project here, in which she will monitor the flow of books into and out of her home. I don't want to take pictures because it's too depressing, but trust me, we too are DROWNING in books, though I have donated hundreds this past year (at least 1 bag of about 10 books, about every month). She uses a whiteboard and is including digital books.

My plan is to track what goes to the public library's book sale (which is the only place I donate books), and to use a spreadsheet because I am slowly learning to set up spreadsheets (I already use a few but they were designed for me). I have a few digital books but generally read only library books on my Kobo. And I am not tracking my husband's purchases because if buying a mass market paperback gives him pleasure, more power to him. (However, I'll track when that sucker leaves the house.)

Part 3. The final part of this project, for me, will help ensure that the flow of books out will be greater than the flow of books in, because (drumroll) I'm going to read the books we already own before I buy new books. And if I say "I'm not going to read this" about a book, then I get to get rid of it (if it's mine). Books for the in-person book club my husband and I belong to are exempt from this--I already try to find those books at the public library. I also meet a friend via Skype to talk books, and we already focus things available from the library or those we already have.

Still, this commitment was a big deal. I'm not sure why it generated so much anxiety. I do know that some people get a thrill from new shoes, a new recipe, a new (to them) movie or TV series--and maybe that's what I get from a new-to-me book. In any case, we have a LOT of exciting books, and I'll read them. And then I will buy more, because this project isn't about virtuous self-denial of pleasurable activities; it's about NOT DROWNING.

January is more than half-gone and writing deadlines approach, so my tiny little goal for the rest of this month is to set up the spreadsheet while I maintain the other elements of this project. I'll go back perhaps a month (new Christmas books) but basically start with what I'm reading now, and report back periodically.

* Incidentally, clearing out your parents' home is a really good way to face the fact that you, too, will never be able to read all the books. Also that collecting books you want to read is an exercise in hope. My father was nothing if not hopeful. Although his historian's tendency to save EVERYTHING made me a little nuts, it still warms my heart to remember both the variety and the constancy of his interests, as shown in the new books he owned and, presumably, hoped to read some day. 
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Music

In 2013, I knew I wanted more music in my life, but I wasn't sure how. So I tried a few small things.

In the car (when I remember), I've been listening to music radio stations (for example, CBC Radio 2 vs. Radio 1) more often. And on occasion, I've driven in silence! But that's another post.

This fall, on an evening trip home from somewhere, I caught part of Randy Bachman's Vinyl Tap program. (Yes, THAT Randy Bachman.) He was talking about (and playing) one-hit wonders, and hearing a bunch from the 1970s and 1980s took me right back. It was extremely conducive to reflecting on who I was back then and (most important) why on earth did I believe that what happened at the time was so important?

Since then, I've tried to be a little more intentional about listening to Bachman's Vinyl Tap. I enjoy the themes: songwriters, for example, or sax solos. It's engaging to *listen* to instead of simply experiencing it as background noise. I highly recommend the show, which plays at many scheduled times, and the site has some archived programs. So does this site.

But background music has its place, too. Over the years, I've uploaded a lot of stuff into iTunes, and recently I've made new playlists and have had them on while working. It's amazing how I can feel a surge in positive energy when something upbeat comes on.

Even these small steps have made a big difference in my enjoyment of whatever it is I'm doing--and, wonder of wonders, adding in some music occasionally hasn't required a HUGE RESOLUTION or DISCIPLINE or anything else that smacks of BIG PROJECT. Something I tend to forget about, in relation to many things!

Oops, gotta go sing along with Etta James on "At Last."
Thursday, January 2, 2014

Backward, Forward

Although the beginning of the school year FEELS more like a new year, I can't argue with the calendar. Today is the second day of a new year. So it's time for resolutions and all that.

Last year had lots of fun times and some times that weren't so fun. But one of the best things I did all year was this "great moments" jar. Except I didn't use a jar, I used a coffee can because we create an empty coffee can every week. (Yes, coffee in a can; that's a discussion for another day.)

So. This is what my "great moments" jar looked like last year:

I was not an art major, y'all














And I have a similar one for this year.

The idea is you write down great moments on a slip of paper and put it in the jar. Of course, I didn't put in a slip of paper every day; I often went months without even thinking of it. (Another example of transcending my upbringing--when I realized I hadn't done it in awhile, I didn't castigate myself or stop doing it. I just put in some events I remembered and went on with my life.)

In short, I did it consistently enough that reading through the slips from 2013, on New Year's Eve, was an interesting and quick review of the year. Very worthwhile.

So far in my "great moments" jar for this year, I have a slip that says "lynx," because we saw one cross the road earlier today. And holy cow now I can add another one, because a young lynx (or perhaps a female; anyway, a smaller one) just came up to the house to see if there are any morsels of dog left in that old doghouse near my office door. I love living here.

But yes, writing and Real Life. I've also got calendars and goals and hopes and wishes and dreams and disciplines for the coming year. And I'm ready to move forward, in part because of looking back at the "great moments."