Friday, 5 December 2014

Saskatchewan and Sharjah

Did I talk about my time in Sharjah?  I didn't?  It has been a while.  Yeah, I scored the trifecta for literary travel this fall -- Brazil, Arab Emirates, Saskatchewan.  All it takes is a bit of luck and the ability to say, Yes, when someone asks if you want to go someplace. 

So, Saskatchewan.  Walked across the tarmac in Regina shivering like a bunch of castanets. -45 with the wind chill.   No I am not kidding.  You know how it is when you take a breath and your lips, lungs and inside of your nose freeze solid?  Like that.  Thank heavens my car, air bnb, local restaurant and schools were all well heated.  Actually, I had a great time in Regina and Saskatoon, hanging out with a couple of the '7' authors and chatting to large bunches of goofy kids.  Among other things I learned that St Timothy was one of the guys Paul sent letters to.  (Apparently the fast route to sainthood is to be on Paul's Christmas list.)  Man, the prairie cold is a real thing -- not like our southern Ontario version.  Yeah, I know, wet cold get here is supposed to make you feel worse than dry cold, but numbers don't lie and -45, no matter how dry, is plenty plenty cold.  

 A week earlier I was jogging around a person-made lagoon in dry, sunny, 27-degree weather, on my way to the 'blue' souk to grab prezzies for my kids (there are two kinds of souks -- blue and gold.  The gold one only deals in precious metals, and my kids are not getting those kinds of prezzies).  I saw a totally unexpected --

Shoot, time has done its thing and I am late.  How does that happen?  I still haven't said much about Sharjah.  Remind me to tell you about my televised panel discussion with the lit. professors and minister of education.  Topic:  'The Nectar Of Meaning.'  Oh yeah. Scrimger playing with the big kids. Til soon.

Friday, 7 November 2014

charades in Brazil

So I'm back, and if you didn't know I was away, that's, well, realistically, my fault, since I don't update my status very regularly. (Lot of commas in that sentence, did you notice? I'm not fond of them normally but there they are. Anyway --)

Brazil.  That's where I was, representing my country loud and proud at the Porto Alegre Book Fair, the - ahem - largest outdoor book fair in the world.  The fair is proud of that claim and makes it often.

Porto Alegre is a real city, biggish but understandable, not like Sao Paulo which is bigger than most countries. Porto Alegre has a university, some industry, a huge marketplace (that's it in the picture) and government stuff floating on top.  There's a good vibe, lively and friendly.  Not touristy.  Not at all.  In fact I had real trouble making myself understood.

I'm used to travelling in Europe where people, especially service people, are polyglots, and since I can get by in English and (sort of) French, I can hail a cab and order a meal and avoid getting run over most of the time.  Not in Porto Alegre, though.  I almost missed my flight because they changed the gate and only told us in Portuguese.  The desk guy at my hotel (The Grand Amazing Metropolitan or something - totally normal mid-price place close to the fair) smiled widely but shrugged at my questions, pointing at my room number and pantomiming opening the door. 

And that was the norm.  For me Porto Alegre is the city of charades.  Thank heavens for the fair volunteers who made sure I got to my various events.  Thank heavens for the English-language-based schools I talked to, and the journalists, and the other Canadian authors, who maybe preferred French to English but spoke it well and didn't mind me bumbling away in their language. 

But the rest of the trip -- hilarious!  I love walking around a new city, getting a sense of it.  It's my favorite thing to do.  I did a lot of walking around in my few days in Porto Alegre.  And everywhere I went, every question I asked, every encounter with a native, broke down to the lowest common denominator of personal exchange: charades. 

Yup.  Just like this. Take coffee, for instance.  I drink a lot of it and Brazil makes good coffee.  But I wasn't able to convey that I drink my coffee with milk. Coffee with milk is easy in English, in French, in Spanish.  But not Porto Alegre Portuguese.  I tried milk on the side.  I tried a glass of milk.  I got a hundred frowns, shrugs, enlightened nods followed by whipped cream (and once a cream-filled doughnut.  That made me laugh out loud).  I mimed pouring milk into coffee, and got sugar.  I mooed and got a startled response, which I can't really blame the waiter for.  Cappuccino worked, but I don't want cappuccino all the time and I couldn't get across the idea that I didn't want the milk foamed. 

Not until I lunched with the the Canadian Trade Commissioner, on my last day there.  Paulo is friendly and hard-working.  We got on well.  He blinked when I explained my request, said something to the waiter.  The coffee arrived the way I like it - the milk was even warm. 

Thanks!  This is great!  How do I order it? I asked Paulo, who frowned at his own espresso.

I drink a man's coffee he said, and changed the subject.

This part of Brazil - gaucho country - has a strong sense of machismo, and Paulo is a man's man.  If I go back I'm going to have to learn the Portuguese for woman's coffee.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

where am I again?

I'm terrible.  I should be posting more frequently. I have lots to say.  Stuff is happening.  But, alas, though my life keeps getting fuller, the number of minutes in the day stays the same.  So not only am I not posting as often as I'd like, I am not able to write as lengthily as I used.

So, like, I am in Alberta now, land of farms and oil and cities like Edmonton, where the streets are numbered and change numbers from block to block so that what used to be 66th is now 75th ...  and then it turns into 66th again.  As if the city was designed by a numerate geek who had too much to drink and then started punching away at the calculator.

It's easy to get lost (in fact it's almost impossible not to get lost) , which is too bad if there's a  schoolful of kids waiting for you to talk to them.

On the good side, it's not boring. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

guys n gals n fuss

Let's talk stereotypes.  Not race or age or class ones, they're eye-rolling and I often get them wrong. (Those guys - they're the ones who can't jump, right?  No? Then are they the ones who can't parallel park?  Who marry their cousins?  Wait, that's us?  Oh.  I'm bad at this.)

Let's talk sex, because even at their most misleading, sex-stereotypes can be funny and embarrassing.

Someone called a stereotype the shortest distance between two minds (unless one of the minds is mine, and we're talking about those incestuous non-parkers), so there's some truth buried in the lies around guys and gals.  I was talking with a gal pal about birthdays today.  Her husband had forgotten hers, and she was mildly steamed.  We've been together for 28 years, you think he'd remember even though he's only a guy, she said, or something like that.  My mom and sisters remembered, she said.  My co-workers took me to lunch, she said.  There was wine and cake, she said.  Come to think of it, maybe she was a bit more than mildly steamed.

I got to thinking.  With application, I can come up with a dozen or two birth dates for people in my life, but how many of those do I remember on the date? (And by remember I don't mean gifts from the jeweler or bakery or lunch with wine.  I'm talking a phone call or email, a Hey, slugger today's the day kind of remembrance.)   And the answer came back -- the ones whose birthdays I note are the ones who remind me.  And all of those -- a solid one hundred per-cent -- are female.

My first thought is Eek. Not that I don't remember more dates on my own.  I am ok with that.  My Eek is that so many more woman than men worry about this stuff.  Of course my test sample is small, and my data aren't valid.  But they are overwhelming, and if they are valid, I want to know why?  Why?  Aren't women supposed to fear getting old (not like men -- we love it).  What's the good of an official notice that you now have a bigger number beside the AGE column of your various applications?  How is this fun?  Even the cake and wine don't do as much for you as they did when you were eight or eighteen.  The fuss doesn't make - pardon me - sense. 

Is that it?  I wondered.  Is it the fuss? Queen for a day is a stereotype after all -- there's no real guy equivalent.  (Tsar for a day?  Daily Despot ...) 

Gee, I hope I'm wrong.  The feminist in me demands that we women value ourselves every day of the year, rather than trying to persuade others to notice us on one special day.  Secretary's Day is demeaning.  I don't want charity.  As a women I would SO not remind my guy self that I have a birthday coming up.

Of course, I am not a woman, and I like to make people feel good.  One way to do this is to listen to them.  My gal pal had finished talking.  It was my turn.  There was silence on the line, and then - belatedly, for the dumb guy stereotype has some truth to it - it dawned on me.  Happy Birthday, I said.  Many Happy Returns.  I'm sending you some flowers.

Aw, thanks -- you remembered, she said. 

I hung up and started googling florists. 

Saturday, 19 July 2014


Your kids are your pride and joy, your cross and anchor, your pillar and post, your hopes and fears for all the years. They need your love and attention, advice and consent, support and validation.  And they grow.  And somewhere along the way to adulthood you stop thinking of them in terms of yourself.  They stop being primarily your anything and you can see them as themselves.

Ed spent the first part of the summer hitch-hiking across Canada without texting or phoning much, which has been just fine with me.  A friend asked if I was even a little bit worried when I didn't hear from him?  No, I said, emphatically, I'd worry more if did get in touch a lot, because that would mean he was bored or broke.  Or dead in a ditch, said my friend.  Or that, I agreed, but of the three possibilities -- bored, broke, dead -- the first two are way more likely.  My friend said she was glad I was not her dad, and I agreed.

Ed finally called from Vancouver last week.  I could hear the satisfaction in his voice, the sense of accomplishment.  He'd made it all the way across the country.  I decided to fly out and meet him, because I like Vancouver and seldom get a chance to see my friends out there and, well, because I missed my boy. Also because I believe in story arc, and Ed hitch-hiking home would be a long denouement. Sam and Frodo don't have to walk home from Mount Doom.  Ed had got all the way to the coast, thrown his ring into the fire, and he should go home on the back of an eagle (well, a Boeing 737).

So I fly out, and Ed and I end up one evening in the Alibi Room (such a great bar) and on my way back from the bathroom I see that he seems to be getting on very well with the table next to ours, half a dozen mixed twenty-somethings with Teutonic-type accents. Lots of laughter.  And then, as I approach, I see everyone, including Ed, lean forward and snort something off the backs of their hands.  Like this.

Seriously.  Now I am not more of a hypocrite than I can help.  I can't say I have never ingested anything off my hand - or someone else's hand, come to think of it.  So I am not appalled at what I see.  But I probably look a little quizzical. Hey Dad, says Ed, wiping his nose, you should try this stuff.  It's great! 

Turns out they are snorting snuff, which I have always associated with pre-cigarette culture but which seems to be enjoying a renaissance what with smoking being so uncool (like horking up your nose is sexy?  Not that I am judging.  But, you know, really?) and socially complicated.  Whatever.  Anyway, we move the tables together and hang out together until the bar closes, another hour or so.  Yes, I try the snuff too.  I get a zippy feeling and a huge hit of mint -- seems I am snorting menthol, funny because back in the day these were so not the cool cigarettes.

I am dazzled -- positively dazzled -- at how easy Ed is with me and all these strangers.  He is confident, careless, funny, teaching some English and learning some Schweizerdeutsch, palling with the guys and flirting with the gals, unself-conscious, putting it out there and not worrying about looking like a dork.  It's not a chrysalis-butterfly transformation, but Ed has modulated, modified, altered over the last few months.  Or maybe the change is partly him and partly the way I see him.  Yes, he'll always be my boy but he is also, clearly, totally, himself.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

where's my Maserati?

I have a roomie.  Ed is back from college for a while before he heads on a cross-country adventure to learn about life (that's the free spirit goofball part of me) and earn no money towards next year (that's the grumpy cardigan wearing dad part).  So, since Ed needs a place to sleep,  I have been futon shopping. 

Futons are not shoes (yes, Captain Obvious lives here) and I can't see even Imelda Marcos having that much fun shopping for one.  When I saw a sign that read The Futon Shop I walked in, and ten minutes later I was getting out my VISA card.

Slight gulp moment, though.  Outlining my futon needs for the store guy, I found myself falling back on the car analogy.  I don't want bells, whistles and Italian styling, I said.  I want cheap and dependable -- the Toyota Corolla of futons.  I have used the same analogy when buying bikes, back packs, insurance, shoes (sorry, Imelda) and computers -- and it occurred to me, as Futon Guy nodded his understanding and pointed to their most durable cheap and best-selling model (which I bought) that I might be living a Toyota Corolla life. 

Gulp or what? 

Where do I spend happily?  Where do I care for more than function?  Where in my life do I want the Maserati version of whatever I am buying?  Not that there's anything wrong with a Corolla.  That's the whole point.  But still, gulp. 

I'm not upset that I don't own sports cars or first editions or 600.00 jeans -- but I am somewhat aghast that I don't seem to want any.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

since last we spoke

Once again it has been a while since I posted.  Maybe we should realize that this is the norm, so in fact it has NOT been a while, it has been the regular length of time between posts. 


What have I been up to?  Well, yesterday we had my daughter Imo's birthday party, and I made the worst cookie cake ever.  I am a pretty terrible baker but this was bad even by my standards.  We ended up dumping the dessicated sweet crumbs (yup, that's what the cake turned into -- I do NOT know why, I swear I followed the recipe) onto some ice cream, and eating that.  With vast amounts of coffee and forbearance it was a plausible dessert. 

It was my third night back from Ottawa, where I had been hanging out with young authors and old airplanes.  The event was the MASC young authors' conference (I would tell you what MASC stands for but I have forgot and am too lazy to check).  Kids were charming and (God bless them!) eager to buy books, festival ran well, and the other authors were old friends I don't get to see often enough (that's us in the picture -- note the dazed expression on Marthe's face.  She knows me best, even to the extent of working on a book with me.  More on that in a later post.)

The event was held at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, a hangar full of jets, bombers, space suits, biplanes, and super cool aeronautical stuff.  The 9-year-old boy in me was dazzled, especially since I got to hold my workshops near the ejector seat display.  That's right, I actually sat (don't tell anyone) in a working ejector seat.


That one there.  Fun? Oh yeah, especially since the MASC people put us up in a hotel near a lot of bars, and at least one of the other authors (note the way Lesley is leaning in the picture) doesn't mind going out for a drink or three.   

Saturday, 8 March 2014

a true

Well here I am in warm sunny palm-tree rum-punch country.  Kingston, not the one in Ontario.  I am here on behalf of an NGO called CODE.  Yes, I am doing good for a change.  Caribbean kids need more good books by local authors, and I am here to help.  I know.  I'm blushing too.   But it's a cause I have no trouble getting behind.  I love kids and stories, and am happy to bring them together.  So far I have had a wonderful (can not stress this too much) time with people from various literacy organizations -- CaribLit, Bocas LitFest, and others I can not now remember or find in my emails.  The two days of workshops were fun-filled and funny.  There are some really good authors here, with wonderful story ideas.  I have made jokes and friends, elicited a few snorts and spit-takes -- and more than a few startled shrieks.

For all the ganja-reggae-irie stereotype, Jamaica is a fairly conservative place.  Family (especially Mom) and politeness and the 10 Commandments are all big deals, not to be made fun of.  Oops.  Midway through the first day, the workshop organizer (she was one of the spit-takers, bless her) tweeted that I had made 4 nude references and dropped 6 f-bombs (including a mother-f-bomb that made a well-dressed older lady raise her hands and say, Lord have mercy! aloud). She warned everyone to hang onto their hats. 

Despite all the fun I've had, and despite the lovely weather, my overall response to the city of Kingston is, well, disappointed.  It's so darn unfriendly.  Driving to and from festivals and bookstores, walking the couple dozen blocks around my upscale hotel (more blushing - that's it in the picture up there), I can not help noticing that residential streets are all lined with high walls, many with razor wire on top.  Like this

All right, that's an extreme example, but the walls are everywhere.  This shot was taken not a million miles from my hotel.  In sober fact you walk on a narrow sidewalk, street on one side and 10-foot wall on the other.  And these defences are not to protect the American Embassy or the Anthrax Animal Testing Corp -- behind the walls sit regular middle-class two-deckers and bungalows.  You see them through the gates. Jane Jacobs would sigh.  This is a scared city. 

Tomorrow, I head for Guyana, where I am told the mosquitoes are bigger than I am.  Speaking of scared....

Thursday, 6 February 2014

time tide and hair

It takes years for a day to go by, and then three months pass in the twinkling of a toe. In my experience the difference lies in who needs you and how seriously.  So, when I am meandering through my pages, reading what I like or writing something that has no deadline, adding a line here and taking out a line there, beholden to no one and nothing, time is as it were suspended.  It is an infinitely stretched summer day.  BUT when the obligations pile up, when editors and students and children are clamouring for pages, comments, suggestions, advice, decisions, school fees, when my boat of life is being heaved towards the leeward shore of ruin by an implacable setting tide of deadlines, THEN, then time passes at an Olympic bobsled pace, and every time I look up I have fallen another several hundredths of a second behind the leaders. 

The crisis passes, the work is delivered more or less complete, appointments filled, decisions taken or postponed, school fees paid, and time resumes its more leisured aspect.  Until the next crisis.

This ebb and flow, wax and wane, give and take, relativity of time is old news, of course -- Professor Einstein is not the first to comment.  My case is probably not as extreme as I think it is.  What I now realize (being in a relatively slow period, and therefore with leisure to ponder in) is that the idea of time passing NORMALLY has no meaning.  It's like asking the ocean, When is the tide NORMAL?   Since it is always making or setting, all tides are normal.  See? 
(I must have learned all this in elementary school but I can't recall any of it)

So when I was juggling copy edits on three books at once, sleeping little and drinking too much coffee, when fall passed in a blur and Christmas came in what I would have thought was October, that was normal.  As is now, with the books off my desk, finishing a term of teaching, waiting for a contract, starting the next project. I've been in stasis for what seems like months, even though it's only been about a week.

 The only constants are reading and coffee.  Oh, and needing a haircut -- that'll be for next time

Thursday, 2 January 2014

how should a nanny be?

It's moral dilemma time. Not that I am going to actually do anything, but I don't know how to feel.  No that's not right either -- I know how I feel, I just don't know if I am right to feel this way.

Here's the situation.  I was walking through my totally nice if slightly smug Toronto neighborhood (dogs with hankies for collars, hybrid cars, anti-pipeline signs) on my way to the subway when I met a three-or-so-year-old kid out in his stroller with his nanny pushing.  No, that's not the dilemma.  I have no problem with nannies.  Kids need care, parent or parents are busy, and rich enough to afford help, nannies like kids and want a gig -- everybody can win.  Wait, though -- could this lady have been the kid's mom?  Sure.  She had the air of a nanny but I guess you never know.  That's not the dilemma either.  Wait for it. 

She was talking excitedly, reminding me of the way I used to talk to my kids on our way to the park or the store or the after-hours clinic.  The language was not English, and the kid did not look like he understood, but my first thought was:  Cool.  The more cultures we are exposed to, the better.  If an Anglo kid learns a few words in Finnish or Portuguese or Mandarin, great.  But this was not the case.  When they passed me I realized the truth of the situation.  She was on a hands-free phone, in the middle of what seemed to be an extended conversation. And I thought:  Hmmm.

 Now if this lady is the kid's mom, ignoring him to chat with her boss or partner or sister, then, well, that is totally normal behaviour.  I've done it myself a million times, more or less like the mom in the picture.  My dilemma here is  hypothetical, but let's say the lady I saw was a nanny.  My question is:  How cool is her behaviour?  

Not a safety issue.  Not a no-personal-calls-ever issue.  Not a language issue.  But if you take them all together, the picture just looks wrong, doesn't it?  The kid is so ignored, so left out of things. It's almost as if he was alone in his stroller.  I guess it would be the same if the nanny took her charge to visit a friend and the grownups ignored the kid but this virtual isolation seems stronger.  No?  Am I wrong?