Monday, August 24, 2015

Litter I See / Literacy

My good friend, Carin, is hosting this interesting blog project to promote awareness of litter and literacy.

To that end, she has invited writers to contribute a piece as suggested to them by a photo of litter they've either taken themselves or she will provide. There is unfortunately so much litter to choose from. Plastic trailed across fences, smeared along street curbs, tossed onto side walks, in the forest, on a shoreline...

I am honoured to join the illustrious littermates with "pureed frog".

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

how about walking 300 k in the Prairies?

Here in Montreal we go for walks by the river. I know him as Matthew, but I see he goes by Matt when he returns to the landscape whence he hails.
After doing more well-known pilgrimages in Spain, Norway, and Ireland--and elsewhere--Matt decided to walk 300 k through the plains of south-west Saskatchewan along what's known as the North West Mounted Police Trail.

I'm proud of him for having walked it. I walk daily and always feel that's a way of being where I am in the landscape, by which I also mean urban landscape. I like to get from A to B on my own two feet, even if it takes more time. I have strong memories of places I've visited because I've seen them slowly--at the pace of walking.

To see the landscape and where Matt and his pilgrims walked, see this fine short video (15 min) by George Tsougrianis, broadcast by Swift Current & Area news.

To read more about Matt's walk, read his excellent blog entries for July, 2015 at

I believe the photo of the rainbow was taken by Bishop Don.

Monday, August 10, 2015

the hoax of beta blockers

I was reading an intelligent, insightful, and funny essay by Meghan Tifft in The Atlantic on the writer's dilemma about going public. It's called "An Introverted Writer's Lament".  

In essence, for myself, I agree with Tifft. I do what I do best alone in a room with a closed door. Yet, in the current marketing climate, writers are also expected to become a personality. They must leave their pages and rooms to stand in front of a crowd and sound charming and witty about the book they've written, writing in general, their cat or dog, how they feel about adverbs, where they grew up, whether they like writing in the morning or at night, whether they use a fountain pen or computer.

Like Meghan Tifft, I'm not saying I'm against that. I understand that readers who enjoy a book might well want to know what the author looks and sounds like. I do my best to take part too.  

However, there was a line in Tifft's essay which I've heard several times now and which I still don't understand. She refers to the ways in which writers attempt to deal with the "blitzed nerves and staggering bowels" that overwhelm them at the prospect of speaking in public. "We bully ourselves into it. We dose ourselves with beta blockers. We drink. We become our own worst enemies for a night of validation and participation."

What is this thing with beta blockers? I've had writers tell me they take them to calm their anxiety about appearing in public. 

I take beta blockers. I take them twice a day--and have been doing so for over ten years for medical reasons. I wish I didn't have to take them because I don't like the side effects. However, since I take them, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that beta blockers have never ever EVER reduced my anxiety (when I'm anxious), nor kept me from perspiring in an embarrassing way (if I'm embarrassed enough to be perspiring). 

Taking beta blockers only slows down your heartbeat. If you are truly anxious, slowing down your heartbeat does not affect your anxiety. Why would it? Anxiety does not come from the heart. The notion that the heart is the seat of the emotions was debunked some while ago.

Or are writers so suggestible that they believe slowing down their heartbeat will make them less nervous? Huh.

Here's a link to the article in The Atlantic 

Monday, August 3, 2015

cold water, hot weather, arrhythmia, atrial fibrillation

Last week it was hot in Montreal. With the humidity, it was over 40C (104F). At these temps my heart starts to feel floppy and irregular, and I am forced to stay indoors and do little.

Yet there I was, obediently staying indoors, not doing much, and drinking a lot, and my heart kept misbehaving. It seemed to me there had to be another factor involved--or at least, I wanted to find one. Anything but sit there at the mercy of my wonky engine (which is what I am, but that's my own existential crisis).

I finally realized that my heart went wildly irregular every time I had a large glass of the very cold water I was drinking to cool me down. Every time, too, my heart stayed irregular for a few hours. It's not a comfortable experience. I have mechanical valves and the beat is both audible and pronounced.

Cold water is hard on the body when it's already trying to stay stable in the heat. Sounds obvious, but it isn't. We live in an air-conditioned, pro-refrigeration society. We believe that when it's hot, we should be gulping down a nice, cold drink. I was recalling how, when I first visited my European relatives in the late 70s, I was never served cold drinks. My grandmother and aunts were shocked when I asked for ice. They said cold drinks were very bad for the heart. Screw that, I thought. Old-fashioned nonsense. I mean, here's a picture of my grandmother stoking the Kamin with wood. Does she look like a medical authority?

Well, in my case, it turns out she was right. I performed several admittedly unscientific experiments with cold drinks. I wasn't exerting myself in any way. My heart was regular. I drank a large glass of water direct from the fridge. My heart did its whoop-dee-do protest. I did it enough times to convince myself.

Since then, the weather has cooled down and I can tolerate cold drinks again. However, I now know that a cold drink during extremely hot weather is an extra stress which my heart doesn't need.

I looked online and found medical sites that confirm the effects of ice-cold drinks on sensitive hearts. However, I didn't find much information which is why I'm writing this. Even if you're in the care of an excellent cardiologist, it's possible you won't be asked if you were having an iced drink when you experienced your arrhythmia.

Note: if you have pronounced arrhythmia and are not already in the care of a doctor, you should see one. Nothing I'm writing here replaces the advice of a medical specialist. I'm writing an account of what I experienced. I'm familiar with certain aspects of my medical history. I've had heart surgery and am taking beta blockers and blood pressure meds.

Monday, July 13, 2015

pitting cherries with a paper clip

This past weekend I brought a cherry strudel to a party. The hard part about making a strudel is stretching a ball of dough this size:

to this size:

Notice that the dough is so thin you can see the tablecloth through it. The dough is stretched by pulling and easing here and there, running your knuckles underneath, fanning your fingers. It takes some practice. Making the dough a day ahead increases the gluten in the flour so it's more elasticky. It's on a tablecloth because you lift the tablecloth to roll up the strudel once it's filled with fruit.

Nobody at the party understood that the dough was the real feat. The ones who were interested in baking (which not everyone is) were astounded that I pitted the cherries by hand. Didn't I use a machine? Did it take me hours?

I didn't use a machine. It did not take me hours.

I told them cherries could be pitted with a paper clip. I'd never tried it, but I'd heard it could be done. Someone went off to find a paper clip and some cherries. I was asked to demonstrate.

Yeah, it does rather mangle the cherries. A machine would probably give you cherries with a hole like a pitted olive. But if you're making pie or strudel, the cherries get cooked.

What I normally use at home is the pick that comes with a nutcracker.

If you're hoping for a photo of how I rolled up the strudel, sorry, I was alone at home. Holding a camera while rolling a strudel doesn't work.

If I had to give a prize for the best cooking/baking feat of the evening, it would be for the home-made lamb sausages--and the birthday cake formed as an island in the ocean with the birthday gal reclining on a deck chair, a book called Life Begins at 50 in the sand beside her. Her luscious, curlicued figure had been fashioned out of a pipe cleaner.

Here's a man who makes stretching strudel dough look really easy.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

solace in the garden

Even when you're sweating and grubby and stooped over and straining your back, there's solace in the garden. There just is.

You brush against the basil and smell basil. You pick a snow pea and munch it.

Here I seeded some bee-attracting flowers because I thought there was room when the tomato plants were still tiny, but now the flowers are in with the tomatoes--which is okay, but my garden doesn't look as nice and orderly as some of the others.

The beans haven't started blooming yet, but they're wound up the stakes I tied with pink cord to help me see them. I keep stabbing myself on stakes.

Behind the beans are beets. In the foreground is a stray calendula another gardener gave me. Calendula oil has beneficial properties but I'm not going to make oil from a single plant, so it gets to have a carefree, flower-in-the-sun existence.

There's also arugula, some carrots, Scotch bonnets, rhubarb, red lettuce, onions, eggplant, green pepper, purslane, and a corner patch of blue cornflowers. Voilà: mon jardin.   

Sunday, June 28, 2015

sousse, tunisia 2006

I am grieved to hear about the terrorist attack and deaths in Sousse in Tunisia.
R and I walked on that beach in 2006.

The sand was fine, the water milky with foam. The weather wasn't warm enough yet for swimming.

A significant sector of the population of Sousse depends on foreigners spending money--staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, buying pottery and embroidered djellabas in the souk. When I told Tunisians we were from Canada, they still called us les européens.

The world over knows Europeans like to drink wine. In Sousse I saw something I'd never seen before outside of a designated tourist district: wine glasses on restaurant tables. I asked a waiter (doubtfully) if they served wine. Of course, he said. Look, we have glasses.
Was I foolhardy to expect wine? To be so non-Muslim in a Muslim country? Tunisia is a wine-producing country. There are centuries-old vineyards transplanted from Bordeaux in Tunisia. I saw them. But the Tourist Office claims (because I asked) all the wine is exported. Every last bottle.

In Sousse that evening R and I returned to the restaurant. This waiter wanted to know what kind of fish we were having. Whatever we said, he would bring us a platter with raw fish to approve before it was cooked. There was no point waving it away. If you didn't look, the waiter urged you to notice the eyes on the various fish, even to prod the flesh.
I asked for a glass of wine. I wasn't trying to disturb the customs of the country or be offensive. I had been told there was wine. But of course, there wasn't. The wine glasses were a clever ruse to get Europeans into the restaurant. Once they'd chosen their fish and it was being cooked, they had to stay.

When I asked for wine in a restaurant where I had been assured there was wine, although I was in a Muslim country, was I more sinned against or sinning?

Here's a cat pretending it's not suffocating in that cabinet under the midday sun. I opened the door at the back for it to escape. It stayed there. Somewhere I've included this stubborn--or lazy--orange cat in a story.

Here's me in a hotel taking notes. The window opened onto the Mediterranean. That, too--the view onto the blue green water--is somewhere in a story. Also the fabric, bordered with pompoms, that lined the walls.

One day I was walking and saw this deranged-looking person walking toward me. This was after I'd been in Tunisia for a month and had gotten used to everyone having dark hair that was either tied back neatly or hidden by a hijab, dark eyes and skin that was browner than mine. This person had short crazy red hair and blue eyes bugged out of a pale, freckled face. Then I realized she was my own reflection.

From Sousse we went to Mahdia by train. At one point the train stopped. We sat motionless for an hour. We had no idea why. None of the other passengers seemed concerned. We sat like the others waiting/hoping for the train to start again. Nobody else admitted to speaking French or English--except for a man who got onto the train and tried to sell us a lizard that looked like a brown spotted Gumby crawling up his T-shirt. Finally we heard shouting down the track. No one else reacted. Not as inshallah as the others, R and I decided to look. The train was on fire. It was all we could do to rouse the passengers, who still sat in their seats, to get off the train which was not going to move for the next few hours.

After our stay in Sousse and Mahdia, we went to Dougga where we visited the Roman ruins. If you are in Italy and visit the Colosseum, you will see how European restorers have tidied the place for tourist consumption. The Tunisians didn't give a hoot about Western history, though they were smart enough to know when they could milk a few dinar out of Western tourists. Without actually honouring a past they didn't believe in, they charged an entrance fee and allowed us to visit Roman pillars as they stood, still intact, with sheep grazing around them.

I don't know how much of the Tunisian economy is dependent on tourism--the hotels, the restaurants, the trips into the desert on camels, the embroidered djellabas and slippers--but tourism in Tunisia has been stopped now. Who suffers the most? The tourists will simply go somewhere else. What about the Tunisians trying to keep their families fed?

Here are Shaima and Jahil whose parents fed us. They asked me to take their picture.