Tuesday, May 23, 2017

saving the planet at the grocery store and other city encounters

I had to buy pressed cottage cheese which I can usually only find at a kosher or "ethnic" grocery store. I use it to make Topfenknödel aka cottage cheese dumplings.

I was two people back in the express checkout. The young woman who had just paid was still talking loudly to the cashier. I assumed she was a friend who wasn't thinking that the cashier was at work. She speaking and doing something... packing her groceries in a cloth bag? all the while talking emphatically. I wasn't listening. I had my earbuds in.

Then, as I got closer, I saw that the cashier was trying to ignore her, as were the other people who had paid and were passing behind her. Her movements were too energetic for simply putting fruit and veg into a bag. She was tearing the plastic wrapping off several packages of pork chops and slapping the raw meat on the cashier's counter. One by one -- three, four, five, six pork chops. She balled up the plastic wrap and tossed the styrofoam trays back to the cashier. It was a crime! How much packaging the grocery store used! And she was mindful of ecology! And saving the planet! More people needed to think about ecology! Weren't they concerned about the planet? Well, she was! Her vegetables already in her cloth bag, she shoved her stack of pork chops on top.

I could have tried to interrupt her lecture to ask why she wasn't eating lower on the food chain if she wanted to do her small yet not insignificant part toward saving the planet, but I didn't get the impression there was a Q&A.


This morning, as I waited for water to boil for tea, I stepped into the backyard to see what was growing. Buds on the columbines, ferns spreading, clematis only starting to send out leaves. We have a small, inner-city backyard with a mismatched wooden fence. The neighbour on one side nailed up boards. The other neighbour asked us to split the cost for a fence with a trellis along the top. We haven't done anything with the weathered planks that face the alley, even though after every winter it becomes ever more impossible to shove open the gate to wheel our bikes out.

Then I noticed the thinning stubble of a man's head over the top of the back fence. I thought he might be walking his dog and the dog had stopped to pee, but a few moments passed and he kept turning his head to the right, then the left, then back to look into our yard again. It felt like a scene out of my novel, Five Roses. I didn't know if he could see me, but he didn't know I could see him or -- I'm assuming -- he would have moved along. I didn't see his shape through the spaces between the shrunken boards, as my character did, because the light wasn't behind him. My character runs to the gate to challenge the man in the alley, but  I didn't want to do that at 7 am, not sure how big the man was. That he stayed there felt threatening enough.

I called out, "What are you doing?" (En français.)

He didn't seem surprised that I knew he was there. He said he was very thirsty and would like a glass of water.

Geez! How can you refuse a person water? I told him to wait.

I still didn't want to open the gate, so I reached the glass over the top of the fence. He drank with loud glugging gulps, then told me that what he would really like was a cup of coffee.

I said there was no coffee. I didn't drink coffee. He suggested I give him two bucks to buy one.

I could have. I should have? But where would we go from there? I didn't want to find him there again tomorrow.  I would have given him money if we weren't having this conversation where I live. I'm not sure I like how I reacted. Or didn't react. I have to think about that. Maybe I was spooked by what happened in my novel.

He thanked me and returned my glass over the fence. We wished each other a good day.

Monday, May 15, 2017

walking and writing / life balance

Years ago, when I was too impatient to wait for the bus to go to work, I realized that I could leave home only 10 minutes earlier and get to work by walking. Ditto the return route. That was how I started: 8 k/day, 5 days/wk.
That was a couple of decades ago. I no longer work in the same place. I still walk.

Walking clears my head. I like that it's gentle exercise. I couldn't sustain anything more aggressive. Moving my legs and body is a good antidote to the stationary hours I spend at my desk writing.

In the sense that walking progresses at a slow pace, walking mimics my slow movement through narrative.

The act of walking balances the act of writing.

My words stay with me too -- even when I don't set out to think about writing while I'm walking.

I replay dialogue. I consider adding a flashback to help with a plot conundrum.

Or I decide to describe the place that I'm walking through.

It often isn't a conscious decision.

Of course, I'm not the first writer who appreciates walking. I belong to a tradition of writers who trudge. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce to name a couple. More recently, Rebecca Solnit has written a book, wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I have friends who are writers with whom I go on long walks.

A good friend and writer, Elise Moser, suggested we do a walking/writing workshop to introduce others to the benefits that we experience.
Last Saturday, Elise and I conducted the workshop under the auspices of the Quebec Writers' Federation.

We planned a route that would take us along the edge of the upscale Montreal neighbourhood of Westmount, then down past the Lachine Canal to Pointe St. Charles, where I live and where I set my novel, Five Roses.

Between walks, we wrote.

Thank you to the Quebec Writers' Federation, the venerable Atwater Library, and the small but welcoming Café Lalli for sitting-down space. Thank you to all who participated for making it an enjoyable day.

This sweetie played a role too, because I saw her while I was walking -- so who knows where her red dress, red shoes, and the two red balls might appear next.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

dear earthworm

Dear Earthworm,

I hope you've noticed that I've grown more civilized in the years (now beginning the fourth!) that I've been gardening. I no longer shriek when I accidentally touch you. That was uncouth, I know, but it's a deeply entrenched behavioural response. Note that I don't say it's instinctive. I've seen young children play with worms -- even try to eat them.

If I ever loved you as a child, at some point I decided you were reprehensible. Because you're not like me with bones, hair, and thicker skin packaging? I don't know. (I'm not even going to mention Freud.)

I can't blame my parents because they were a-okay with worms. The more earthworms, the better, since they aerate the soil. Dead earthworms and earthworm poop make great fertilizer. I grew up in an earthworm-positive home.

Yesterday was the first time this spring that I was able to start work in the garden, seeding radishes and beets. Did you see, I planted garlic last fall? The pink string is to remind myself where I've planted seeds because I need visual aids so I don't step all over the place.

When I had my hands in the soil and and suddenly there you were, I flinched -- okay -- but I didn't shriek. I wasn't expecting you, that was all. Though I do know that's where you live, and I want you stay there because I like you aerating the soil and hope you contribute lots of poop.

I looked at you respectfully. You sort of flinched too. You'd been disturbed. You were cold, and I understood that a boneless, thin-skinned, hairless creature would feel the cold more than I would. I didn't want a bird to get you, so I nudged you back into some loose soil again.

Gloves on, yeah, because I still have that deeply entrenched behavioural response. But I'm working on it. There is room in my garden for both us.

We'll have a good summer gardening, right?
Rapunzel (aka Alice)

Monday, April 24, 2017

bathroom reno / old houses

Might not look like much to you, but this lovely: clean, flat drywall (emphasis on flat because the walls in this house feature nicks and bumps), a professionally plastered corner (no, R, that's not a dig at your attempts, merely a fact), a plug and a light switch where there wasn't one a month ago.

Sure, the wall needs to be painted and I'll get to that once it's warm enough to keep the windows open all day. For now I revel in the new, just up and functioning bathroom.

What used to be in this corner was a grotty sheet of plastic around a curry-yellow tub hardly large enough to turn around while taking a shower. We never used it as a bath. We knew when we moved into the house in 2001 that we would have to redo the bathroom, but change takes time and $$$ and there were more important changes to be made first.

So it was only now that the tub was carted to the dump. Upended, it was an even poorer tub than I'd thought. It was made of tin. Enamelled tin. The man doing the work could pick it up with one hand.

Demolition revealed yet more.

In 1902, houses in Pointe St. Charles weren't built with indoor bathrooms. People had outhouses in the backyard and went to the famous Hogan Baths (now private property -- condos from the looks) for weekly hygiene.

It hadn't occurred to me to wonder what the room that's now the bathroom used to be. Behind the grotty plastic the wood was rotting. Behind the rotting wood was a pink plaster wall with a darker pink carved wooden archway. The bathroom used to be part of a double living room. (No pic, sorry. I took a few but lost them in the upheaval of renovation.)

In addition to changing the layout of the room so the toilet and shower were no longer cheek by jowl, we had the pipes which were above the floor put under the floor. That required lifting the pine floorboards which we wanted replaced again.

Throughout the house we've kept the floors from 1902 which means that our floors are even bumpier than our walls and wouldn't be to everyone's taste, but we like the warmth of the old wood. R will have a couple of days of sanding ahead of him.

For now, the shower works hot and cold (which it didn't at first), there's ample room to turn around, the cabinet accommodates the P-trap (another story), and the toilet is off against its own wall.

What luxury. I am aware of it and I am happy.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Five Roses goes to Quebec City

Who would not want to talk about their book in such a lovely library, in front of an attentive audience? Thank you to CBC's Julia Caron who interviewed me, the Morrin Centre and ImagiNation 2017 who invited me, the people who came and listened with such interest.

Note that if you're at all interested in Canadian history or the history of old buildings in general, the Morrin Centre in Quebec City is well worth a visit. http://www.morrin.org/en/ The stone building was the meeting place for Canada's first learned society; it was Quebec City's first jail; it was the once-upon-a-time Quebec City campus for McGill University... among other things, and not in that order. There are tours to take you from the chemistry lab to the ballroom to the jail cells.

Although there are more academic ways to discuss the age of a building, I like to look at how wood, stone, and metal are worn. Here's a doorstep on the fourth floor. That's a lot of foot traffic.

I had my interview in the library, overseen by a statue of James Wolfe--Wolfe of Wolfe and Montcalm fame, Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759.

Afterward, I went up the stairs to have a closer look at the statue, which has a long history that includes vandalism, a sea voyage around the world, a stint holding up a sign outside a tavern in London, England. I'm assuming the statue is not life-sized.

R and I spent some time at the festival and enjoyed ourselves, but we were also looking forward to walking around Quebec City where he was born and lived until his mid-20s. That's a few years ago now. He was telling me the stories of how it used to be.

This building was once a Kresge's where, as a high school student, he sat at the lunch counter and ate fries.

The yellow brick building across the street was a brothel. The staff ate at Kresge's too.

This large boulevard figures in a story his mother used to tell about living at the bottom of the hill. One day a delivery cart was going too fast and the horse crashed through the kitchen window and ended up with his hooves in the sink.

Quebec City is known for its steep roads.

And, of course, the Plains of Abraham where the fate of Canada--English or French--was decided.

Yes, that's snow. Early April but it will be a while yet before anyone sits on this bench.

In memory of Kresge's, we had some fries.

Though I had mine with a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

montreal april 2, 2017

This, too, is Montreal.
A 30-min walk from where I live, four subway stops from downtown.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Oaxacan dogs / Mexico Jan 2017

He's not dead. He's just hanging out.

When I was in Oaxaca, Mexico in January, I took a lot of pictures of dogs. Why? They have perfected the art of relaxing even on a busy street or with a constant pedestrian traffic mere inches from their bodies.

You might think they're flaked out because it's so hot, but in January, on the hottest day, it wasn't over 28C (82F). These dogs were simply a-okay where they were.

The owners of these dogs are clearly very good to them. I always like a person when their pet is good-natured.

Even the guard dogs keep their cool, watching but not barking if not necessary.

Mexicans have a long tradition of appreciating canine company. Ceramic dogs have been found in archaeological burial sites. These were in the Rufino Tamayo Museo of Pre-Hispanic Art in Oaxaca.

Here's a dog asleep, then having a good stretch. Not all bothered by the foot traffic on market day.

I also took a lot of pics of VW bugs. I think I wrote in a story once that Mexico is where old VW bugs go to retire, but in fact they keep running for a few years yet in Mexico because the dry climate and those VW engines allow it. It might be more accurate to say that Mexico is VW bug purgatory.

Here I got a pic of a dog + a VW bug + a mop.

Why is the mop on the car? Good question.