Thursday, August 28, 2014


Three guesses what this can do.

I'll give you a hint: it's not used during surgery.

Another hint: I have a friend who can do what this does using a wooden gadget.

It doesn't push corks into wine bottles, though I've seen wine-bottle-corkers that look like this.

It doesn't ambulate. It's not a robot. No artificial intelligence hidden in those levers and handles.

But there are moving parts that rotate in circles.

If you stereotype genders--I called my friend a he--you might not expect that this is an implement for cooking. Here he is using his wooden press.

He's making individual nests of pasta called stringhoppers--or idiyappams, which is what his Sri Lankan parents call them. There are other names throughout south-east Asia where they're served in a variety of ways.

The dough is made of red rice flour. It's forced through a press to make noodles that are twirled onto baskets which are set inside a larger basket then steamed.

I apologize for the angle, but you get the idea:


He was telling me how his mother always made extra so they could have them in the morning for breakfast with sugar. He wants his boys to have this experience too--the idiyappam experience in general, idiyappam leftovers with sugar for breakfast. But the boys clamour for sugar the moment they see them. Forget waiting till breakfast.

The adults ate them with curry. They were delicious. A delicacy. But labour-intensive, which explains the attempt to invent a machine that forces out noodles it swirls into nests.

Made in the machine, would they be as good though? I have a friend who says bread is best when made by hand. Gluten won't develop as it's meant to if you don't knead the dough with your hands, stretch and pummel it. When I lived in Toronto, I used to work in a kitchen where the chef made the bartender stand in the refrigerator (obviously a walk-in fridge; their relationship wasn't that weird) to beat cream with a whisk. He didn't believe in whipping cream with a machine. I think I remember that the hand-whipped cream stayed stiff longer.

On another note entirely: does anyone remember Marianne Wiggins? She was Salman Rushdie's second wife. I was looking for a book on my shelves and found her short story collection, Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone (1991). Isn't that a good title? I'm on a streak of reading short fiction and think I'll reread this next. I wonder what she's written since. To be a writer, as well as the partner of a writer with outstanding notoriety, must complicate the questions and doubts that often characterize the writing process. I'm not referring to the notoriety of the fatwa but that Rushdie had already won the Booker when they were married.

The weather is changing. Getting cooler. The wood in the house is creaking, resettling.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

dropped the ball

I had a boyfriend once who was devoted to basketball. He wasn't tall enough to play varsity, but he played intramural on every team that would have him. He played pickup with friends. He got up at 6:30 to coach kids. Rumour has it that he could sink a ball from anywhere on the court. I didn't know enough about basketball at the time to know that was a skill. He was under the much-mistaken impression that I was going to play too. Since the young age when I discovered I couldn't catch a ball, I had no interest in playing games that involved balls. You might wonder that we got so far into a relationship without him realizing that. When we started going out he had a sprained ankle, so I didn't know he was athletic. I had no sprained ankle though. He should have figured out I didn't care about team sports. But we were still in the heyday of our romance, and finally he convinced me to put on shorts and join him on the gym floor. He told me who was on our team which I immediately forgot. He said the goal was to throw the ball in the basket. But oh, you couldn't just grab the ball and run. You had to dribble it. (Seriously, what a dumb word to use in a sport. Dribbling is what a leaky faucet does.) If I couldn't catch a ball, I certainly couldn't dribble it. Shortly into the game, I was asked to leave the court. Afterward he told me I'd embarrassed him. I'd embarrassed him?

This past summer I dropped the ball on blogging. Not because I was lazing around on a dock trailing my feet in the water and reading detective fiction. I've been home for the most part. My own wee personal life has been fine, but too many of my friends have been going through the emotional equivalents of earthquakes. I mean earthquakes on a scale that would make San Francisco a memory. Given which, I didn't feel like writing about some lighthearted topic. The tomatoes growing in my garden, cycling, Spanish grammar, making pesto...

Slowly I'll get back to it. Good things are happening too. Friends about to have babies. Friends with new books coming out.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


'Oscar winner and comedian Robin Williams died this morning at 63. While his publicist wouldn’t confirm that his death was a suicide, a rep did issue this statement. “Robin Williams passed away this morning. He has been battling severe depression of late. This is a tragic and sudden loss. The family respectfully asks for their privacy as they grieve during this very difficult time.”'

This is one of many quotes I saw yesterday evening. It is terrible news from many angles--and doesn't help that no one wants to use the word suicide. 
Suicide is not just a death or a loss. Suicide is a willed departure. The person might not be in a healthy state of mind to make this decision, which allows for no other decisions--but it is nevertheless a decision which was made and acted upon. When the manner of suicide shows meticulous planning it can't be spoken of as an accident. The person was depressed. The person might not be what we call normal anymore. The person wanted to die. 
Family members especially don't want to use the word suicide because it's hard not to wonder how it reflects on the family. Supposedly they're the people closest to the person who wanted to be dead--who did not or could not reach out to them for help. 
As a family member it's hard not to feel at least partly blamed that your child, sibling, or parent chose to die. Suicide exposes the great despair this person must have felt. Suicide exposes how alone this person was in their despair. 
Well, okay, existentially we're all alone. But part of learning how to manage in life is making connections--lifelines let me call them--to others. 
As long as people don't talk about suicide openly, it will continue to happen and be swept aside as a shameful taboo. As a secret, suicide will continue to work its magic, beckoning those who only want all their troubles, darkness and misery to stop.
The implications for family (and society) who have had a suicide are stronger than the grief one feels over a death. We grieve for death. With suicide our grief is compounded by guilt and even anger. It's hard to grieve when you're angry at this goddamn stupid thing the person did. 
Earlier this summer the brother of a good friend, a man to all accounts successful at his work, much loved by his colleagues and friends, married and with two children, killed himself. Though it was hard, the decision was made to speak of suicide at the funeral service. I respect and commend that the family took this step.  
I'm remembering my sister's suicide over thirty years ago. Our family had no service. We're not religious. But we also never got together to honour her memory. Were we ever even all in the same room together after her suicide? Suicide has the potential to blast a family dynamic apart. 
What I realized, while listening to the readings at the funeral service for our friend's brother, was that I had allowed the manner of my sister's death eclipse the fact that she'd lived. All my memories of her were coloured by her final decision to go. That was wrong--but it's not only my wrong. It's how we deal with suicide in our society. 
Robin William wasn't "lost". He killed himself. I wish it would be said openly. Now is not the time for euphemisms. In his case at least, since he was famous, people will remember his life and accomplishments. But people also need to think why he chose death. 
In the years since my sister's suicide, I have talked to many people about suicide. It turns out many have a family member--an aunt, a grandfather, a mother, a cousin, a sibling like myself--who have killed themselves. It's still said with a hush. We have to say it out loud.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

diego rivera's judas figures

Here's me and a Judas head in Mexico City. Where else would that blue wall be but at Frida Kahlo's Casa Azul?

Judas figures belong to an old Catholic custom of making papier-mâché figures, representing Satan and Judas, which are burned, exploded, or flogged on the Saturday before Easter. 

I'm thinking of them now because I was leafing through an old notebook and came across the drawings I did in Diego Rivera's studio. I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the building, though no one stopped me from sketching--which, admittedly, is not one of my fortes. Still, you get the sense. 

The bodies were about 10'/3m high, made of papier-mâché, adorned with buttons, bones, horns, stones and teeth, brightly painted and propped before a window of many panes. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo collected them. I suppose it was a way of never being alone in a room if you don't mind the company of demons. 
I sketched this fellow too. I liked his metal-hoop ribs. I couldn't tell if his limbs were made of bone or wood. I didn't forget his eyes and nose. He didn't have any. Or maybe it was a she. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

first books

I didn't grow up with children's books in English. I had no access to a library and avidly wanted to read. I took up the books my mother was using to teach herself English. They were:
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
Jonathan's Swift's Gulliver's Travels
Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth

I don't know if these were the best choices for her to learn idiom in Canada in the 1950s and 60s, but that was what she had. The Jonathan Swift is a green hard-cover book that purports to be a reprint of the 1735 Dublin edition. Nouns are capitalized and the meaning or use of some words would now be considered archaic. For example--and I can open the book at any page to find an example--"But I shall not anticipate the Reader with farther Descriptions of this Kind..."

I think my mother realized that Gulliver's Travels wouldn't help her navigate the grocery store, so that book at least became mine.

As a child, I suspected the lands described in Gulliver's Travels were fictitious--but I also wasn't really sure.  

How often did I reread Pride and Prejudice? Often. By adolescence I expected potential boyfriends to be Darcys. I was ready to play scornful Elizabeth. Guys never got it. That was one way I learned the difference between real life and books.

By early adulthood P&P had become my emotional equivalent for thumb-sucking. When I felt depressed, I picked it up. I loved the language and consoled myself with the story.

I haven't read it for a while now, though I listened to it as an audio book about a year ago--when I was trying to decide whether I was game for the audio book experience. I looked for a free service online and found Librivox, which is good depending on the skill of the reader. (Even if it's a free service staffed by volunteers, I don't think people learning English as a second language should be practicing by recording Middlemarch, for example.)
I do highly recommend the recording of Pride and Prejudice by Elizabeth Klett: 

Today I was in a secondhand bookstore with a friend and I saw the same edition of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth that I read at eight years old. I'm pretty sure it's the same because it's the same cover with an original sale price of 35 cents--as I remember.

I was fascinated by the world described in this book. Although it was foreign, I believed it was real in a way that the lands Gulliver visited weren't. How much was description of social conditions, how much romanticized, I don't know. I'll have to reread the book. I bought it for $2. When I was eight, I couldn't understand what a concubine was. I think I know that now.

I was an adult before I discovered Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

rapunzel's garden: update

In Montreal it's hot and humid. Rather than complain about the heat, Rapunzel would sooner think about her garden.

You have to remember she lived many years in a tower hanging her hair out a window. She doesn't always know what she's doing in the garden. She takes advice from strangers. That funny, fabric-looking stuff around the zucchini is something a man at the gardening center said would help keep the moisture in the soil. Does it? Who knows.
She still gets startled by worms and sow bugs, though she doesn't shriek anymore when she touches one.
It's a big incentive to see how the dried peas she poked into the soil a mere 5 wks ago have grown into plants almost as high as her shoulders. (Okay, she's short.)
The carrots, beets, basil, lettuce, beans are growing. There are flowers on the canteloupe.
The eggplant hasn't flowered yet and she worries because one of her all-time favourite things to eat is barbecued eggplant. She slices the eggplant, brushes it with a paste of olive oil, paprika and mustard, grills it slowly. It's good right off the grill and even more delicious cold the next day in pita with cheese and arugula.
So far she's harvested arugula, red leaf lettuce and a Boston lettuce.

There weren't enough snow peas to make a meal, but enough for a snack. The white tissue bits on the tips are the flowers. Rapunzel thinks they should be eaten with the snow peas. Growing her own produce has made her hyper-respectful of all aspects of a plant.

Nevertheless, she knows she has to nip suckers, prune lateral stems etc. Or at least, that's what she's read. When she actually trimmed some vines off the cucumbers that were threatening to choke the beans, the women in the saris stopped gossiping to cluck disapprovingly and shake their heads. Rapunzel tried to explain. "The cucumbers--the branches are getting too big." She waved her arms to demonstrate. "Big," the women agreed. But they would have done something else to control the cucumber, Rapunzel can just tell.

Off to the side of the garden allotments is a wooded area with picnic tables and a hammock--a very comfortable hammock. Look, there's a man having a snooze right now. 

And yeah, isn't it amazing: all this in the city. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

bangladeshi stir-fry / intercultural gardening

Any ideas as to what this is? The stalks are two feet in length. R ate a leaf raw and said it tastes like grass.
The woman in the sari from the neighbouring garden plot insisted on giving me some. She couldn't tell me what it was. She said to cook it in "ulive oil" with "ninion" and "garlic". I am not making fun of her accent. I'm thinking her pronunciation might give me a clue as to what the leaves are.
I have red leaf lettuce ready to eat in my garden and offered her some. She shook her head.
I had one hot pepper almost 6" long which I picked and gave her. She smiled but looked pained. "Too..." She held up her arm and circled it with her fingers. "Like this."
The peppers are supposed to get fat as her arm before I pick them??? I didn't know.
"This..." She showed me my pepper. "Not tasty."
I'll bet it's probably as hot as I can tolerate.
So one learns.

P.S. I have since cooked the leaves. They have an interesting texture unlike spinach or sorrel. Rather than wilting as soon as they're in the oil, they get sort of crispy. Thank you to Louise Voyer who identified them as amaranth greens--aka callaloo and many other names throughout the world.