Friday, December 30, 2011

what the body remembers

pitpatPATPATPATPATptptptpt (pause) PITpatpitpatpitpat
I never thought I had such a silly heart, but boy, it doesn't take much these days to kick up a jig.
Of necessity, New Year's Eve will be quiet. R and I will stay home.
On the menu: grilled salmon. Just before the salmon is finished, we slather it with pesto, top that with finely sliced marinated dried tomatoes, then back under the grill till the edges of the tomatoes char--only a minute. The salmon is served on a bed of baby arugula lightly dressed with lemon and olive oil. Feeble heart doesn't mean I've lost my appetite.
Later in the evening I might start knitting a sweater with the gorgeous kettle-dyed merino wool R gave me for Xmas. The brand is called Malabrigo Rios. Variegated yarn so luscious in texture and colour that I hold it and marvel--partly because I worry it will look a lot less rich once I start to torture it with the needles.

I haven't knit a sweater for close to 30 yrs. My hands still know how to knit, purl, crossover, increase and decrease. I can cast on like I did it just yesterday. The movements aren't the problem. I'm alarmed at the revolution in knitting patterns. I've only ever knit from the bottom up--the back, the front, the sleeves. You knit distinct pieces, then sew them together. What's this nonsense about knitting a whole sweater in one piece from the neckline down?
The two helpful women who work at Mouliné, an excellent yarn store on Notre Dame in Montreal, tried to convince me that knitting like this works very well. On a circular needle the weight of the yarn gets  distributed more evenly, there are no bulky seams, etc etc. Two women, who were sitting at a table knitting, got in on the discussion too. Yet even as this charming bevy of advisers encouraged me--and even as I agreed with them, appreciating their advice--I thought it was crazy. I'm not ready for a neck-down project. I want a bottom-up pattern. I'm not against trying something new, but not for the first time with such expensive yarn, and not when I'm going to be convalescing from surgery, unable to take my botched knitting to the store for help.
I don't make New Year's resolutions. Birthdays are my watershed for wondering where I've gone and where I'm going next. New Year's is when I have to remember to write a new number for the date. I'm happy, too, that the short winter days are starting to get longer.
Okay, back to looking at for a pattern that makes sense...
I'm relying on my hands to remember how to knit. I'm relying on my wonky heart to remember to keep beating.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

the last brick

For those of you who like the end of stories, here's what happened with the brick.
At the beginning of Sept I wrote that we were having the brick on our house redone. We found a man who removed the old brick and turned it around, giving the old brick a new life. We'd seen other facades he'd done in the neighbourhood and were ready to let him have a go at our house. That was when? Sept 1st that he started? (And actually, it was July of last year that he signed a contract.)
Today, an hour before the first big snowstorm of the year started to hurl and blow across the city, he set the last brick in place. Note my restraint in wording that last sentence. In my head I use more expletives. Emoticons with teeth. Behind my desk, I have an imaginary bricklayer dartboard.
Originally he told us that he would be finished by the end of Sept (which I didn't believe). Then that he would work while we were gone to the Gaspé in Oct (which I also highly doubted). Then that he would definitely finish by mid-Nov, though he still had 2 1/2 walls left.
I had stopped talking to him because I knew that if he pulled the hangdog, it's-not-my-fault face one more time, I would jab his trowel into his carotid artery. I had already heard all his excuses. He'd dallied so long at finishing our house that some of his well-worn excuses had been recycled. He needed to pay to rent the scaffolding. But we'd already given him money for the scaffolding. There was a guy who was supposed to work with him who quit. Well, sure, he quit because he didn't get paid (though we'd paid the bricklayer). He felt justified in not paying his guy because his guy would only buy beer, get drunk and not show up the next day for work. So he assured himself a few days of work by not allowing the guy to buy beer. Brilliant, except that only lasted for so long before the guy got fed up, sometimes drunk too, and left.
Some days the bricklayer did 20 rows of beautiful Paul-Klee-coloured bricks. Other days he futzed around a window. He disappeared for weeks at a time, claiming he was sick. Except that his bunged-up cement mixer disappeared as well, and when R was jogging, he saw it installed at another job site.
A neighbour said we should sue the bricklayer for prejudice because he wouldn't finish our house. Sue him to get what? He didn't even have a bank account. He knew every trick for avoiding disgruntled clients.
A friend who's a stone mason told R not to let the bricklayer lay brick below freezing. The bricklayer told R he was using a special retardant product designed for mortar. R found the empty bottle. Even with the label torn off, who in Canada doesn't recognize an ordinary bottle of anti-freeze?
We tried to charm the bricklayer with compliments. On R's days off, he picked up a mallet and helped remove the old brick. We offered him more money. We were long past caring about the contract. We wanted him to finish and GET OUT of our backyard.
If the bricklayer had any sense of fairness, it didn't apply to us. Trying to reason with him was like running hobbled through a maze. I felt badly that he was working in nothing but a hoodie in the freezing cold with bare hands, but it wasn't our fault that he'd let the work drag out until the freezing cold. Nor our fault that he wasn't wearing a jacket.
Three times the police warned him to stop parking in the alley or he'd get a ticket. But he kept parking in the alley.
If this were a Grimms fairy tale, I'd look for a moral, but morals are harder to identify in real life which slides off the page and shimmies to its own tune. Obviously, had we hired licensed bricklayers, we would have had recourse to their governing body. But we can't afford what licensed bricklayers charge.
Maybe the moral is: leave well enough alone.
Or: you get what you pay for.
I believe there will come a time--when the heaps of old mortar, piles of broken brick, broken buckets, empty cans of power drink have finally been cleaned up--and we've rebuilt our deck and maybe even managed to get some grass to grow again, and I will look up and love the new-old brick walls we saved.
But for now the wind chill is -22C (-8F) and snow howls past the window and I'm inside.

ps. R has read this and points out that there were lots of interesting aspects to bricklaying and even the bricklayer which I've ignored. He says this is a disgruntled post in which I do no more than complain. Sorry. It makes me cranky to live with scaffolding jammed up against the windows for 4 months.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

happy holidays

I risk getting sentimental here--hey, it's Christmas--so stop reading if that bothers you.
Yesterday I received a wonderful gift in the mail. Let me show it to you to see if you can guess what it is. The corner of print on the notepad isn't a clue. That's just one of the many notepads we have lying around. R works at a cemetery. He's not a gravedigger, though that's what he usually tells people when they ask. I suppose it sounds more exciting than telling them about the mounds of paperwork that have to be processed each time a family member tries to get in on the family plot, to buy a niche in a columbarium, bury a small urn, not to mention a coffin. (Do you know what a columbarium is? R's job has introduced all kinds of bizarre vocabulary to our conversations at the dinner table.)

The friend who sent the gift suggested that I could think of as plated chewing gum.
The melted tin soldier from the sad children's story.
An abstract reindeer head.
I enjoy her grim imagination. She's a gal after my own heart. (That's a clue.)
In fact, I love what she imagines as possible substitute shapes almost as much as what it's supposed to represent which is an anatomical heart. See the pulmonary artery up top? The vena cava?
When I consider the blobby shape of a real heart, I'm not sure who came up with the stylized shape we see at Valentine's.
Another friend gave me one of these hearts--in soapstone to fit exactly into my palm.

R and I will be spending a quiet Christmas Eve at home. The most excitement around here will be the beans baking at 250F in the oven. Mais oui, in Québec: beans and tourtière on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

skumin syndrome

By chance I discover that the various manifestations of anxiety related to heart surgery have a name: Skumin Syndrome. Feelings of vulnerability, doubt that the new valve functions correctly, negative visualization of this alien metal in the much-vaunted seat of the soul. It's no more nor less than Skumin Syndrome.
I'm humiliated to have worries so common they've been noted, analyzed, catalogued and given a name. I've never been one to follow trends. Square-toed shoes. Ruffled swags at the window. Songs by Pitbull. Why start now?
If 79.6% of patients, following heart surgery, have trouble sleeping, damn it, I mean to sleep soundly! I hope to regard the soon-to-be non-organic components of my heart with... well, I'll aim for forbearance. Not sure if I can summon up actual affection. I will not sneak my finger to my wrist to check my pulse repeatedly; obsess on the rhythm of my heart; dash into pharmacies to test my blood pressure. I will trust that the surgeon has well and truly repaired my dysfunctional valves with snazzy foreign metal implants. (I should probably stop thinking of them as foreign.)  
I still don't have a surgery date and begin to suspect that I won't have my new heart for Xmas. I'm appalled to imagine how many people have hearts more frail than mine--since they apparently need surgery more quickly than I do. Do they all have Skumin Syndrome?
I am ever-grateful that I write fiction because that's the best way to keep my mind occupied. None of my characters need heart surgery which means--while I'm working on my novel--that I completely forget that I do.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

that time of year nostalgia

I don't like enforced get-togethers and shmalzy muzak carols. But there are aspects of Xmas I like... the outline of coloured lights on the houses when it gets dark so early. The decorated trees. The smell of Austrian Christmas cookies baking. I don't actually eat them--working for a couple of years as a baker killed my sweet tooth--but I love the smell of pepper, ginger and honey; vanilla and butter; hazelnuts and almonds.
I bake a few different kinds of cookies from the Viennese book handed down from my great-grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to myself. The book is so old that the instructions predate electricity: beat egg whites 45 minutes until stiff. Bake at middle heat, ie not too much wood in the stove. The yellowed pages describe an arcane lifestyle of starched collars, boiled laundry, how to lay the table when you invite the priest to tea, how to preserve fish in brine. Here's how to make mushroom juice extract to flavour soups and sauces:

The language is German, the font Gothic. Yes, I can read it.
I usually only refer to this book for the cookie recipes. Someday I'd like to write an essay about the book's journey from great-grandmother, sent down a mountain into the next valley with her daughter, on to Canada with my mother, then to Montreal with me. The women's version of a family bible.
Also from the past, resurrected for Xmas, are my tree decorations. Notice the rust. They aren't fake retro. When my parents split, and my father was packing up whatever my mother didn't want to take into her new life as a gay divorcée, he found the box of tree decorations from my childhood. Stylized metal pine cones with hard white ridges of fake snow. Pink glittery balls with starburst patterns. That shade of pastel aqua that was popular in the 60s. The balls are rusty, the sprinkles balding, the tips scratchy. I hang these mementos with the more artsy decorations friends have given me over the years.
When I was growing up, our Christmas tree was never decorated until the 24th of December in deference to my parents' Austrian tradition of not seeing the tree lit for the first time until Christmas Eve. When I left home, I kept that tradition--overruling various boyfriends' and husbands' objections. Only more recently did I decide that I like the coloured lights on the tree, so why wait? This year we decorated the tree especially early since I'm still in line to get a surgery date that will probably interrupt my time at home over the holidays. I want to see my tree.
My tree and the smell of cookies--that's Christmas for me. Sensory nostalgia.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

throwing in the towel (as in writing)

I grew up thinking the expression was throwing in the bucket. My mother wasn’t a native English speaker and frequently added punch to what she found a flabby inexact language. So you have to hear the contempt and the accent: he alvays srrrows in ze bucket! A lot more definitive and dramatic than a towel.
Bucket or towel, when it comes to writing, I never can. I hang on past desire, inclination, plain old common sense. It’s not commitment. It’s compulsion. I don’t think I’ve ever let a story or a half-hatched novel go. What more likely happens is that my current computer breaks and I get a new one that no longer supports old storage devices—for example, those little A drives. Or a CD gets corrupted. By that point, of course, the writing is so old, it should have been offered a decent goodbye and been buried.
I need to learn to say no. To recognize when I’ve wasted enough time and a piece isn’t working.
I think part of the problem is that the feeling of wasting your time on a hopeless project feels far too much like the questions that surface all the time while you’re writing. Certainly in my case. Is this working, does this drag, is it interesting, does it make sense, who fucking cares, is this working, is this working?
People who continue to write, despite their doubts, are the ones who learn to banish the inner voice to some obscure oblongata where it might continue to squeak, but is too far away to hear distinctly. If you let it get too close, it will get louder than your characters. You cannot let yourself listen. You say no. You growl. You go for a walk and let the wind blow it away.
But then how do you recognize--because it is always possible--when it’s time to listen to the voice? Even the characters are sounding bored with their dialogue because you’ve put them through their paces so often. You’re revising pages you originally wrote before your niece was born, and she’s as tall as you are now. You’ve been told by more than one editor that this block of writing does not work. You had to cut it from the novel. Your best writing buddy, who tries his damndest to get into your groove, can’t get into this one. You spent the whole of your last writing retreat trying to reshape these pages yet again. Your teeth are starting to hurt just thinking about it.
This morning I did it. I packed the old pages away under some other stacks of old pages. Best would be if I could throw them in the recycling bin and erase my USB pen, but hey… go easy. Even alcoholics are allowed to taper off with beer. I’ve said my goodbyes to the characters and their stories. I might want to keep some passages of description. I will stop trying to revise those particular pages. I have SRRROWN IN ZE BUCKET!

Monday, November 28, 2011

new valves for xmas

For Xmas I'll be getting two new heart valves and a new scar. Rumour has it scars are fashionable. I wonder if that rumour includes a zipper down the cleavage. Maybe I can start a fad with the valves too. Why keep a fallible biological valve when you can have one of these shiny metal ones that only stop clicking once you die? (Or they stop AND you die. The logistics still aren't clear to me.)
The date for surgery isn't set yet, but I've been assured the deed will be done before Xmas.
So the holidays will be quiet this year. I won't be baking tourtières and Viennese Christmas cookies. Nor building an amazon snow woman with my niece. Nor dancing with her and her mom to Trinidadian calypso. You don't do your duty, I don't make you roti. My niece and sister-in-law belong to R's side of the family. My family live elsewhere. Ties aren't close.
I'll be spending the holidays at home with R--or at least, I hope I'll be home. Who wants to spend the holidays in the hospital? Wherever I am, if I'm conscious, I'll be having a big glass of wine.
I've stocked up on books. A friend has offered me the loan of her CDs of author interviews from the archives of the British Museum, including Virginia Woolf (!!) and Conan Doyle. I bought some teal yarn--a cotton and silk blend--to knit a sweater. I have a lime-green embroidery hoop and some thread and patterns. Embroidery seems a good convalescent type of occupation. I don't expect to get past a floral trail or two, but I'd like one of those densely embroidered velvet tunics that I saw in Mexico last spring. I figure embroidery is like writing: you start small and project ahead.
Except for having bought new pyjamas and planning what might keep me amused when I'm housebound, I'm trying not to think about the surgery too much. It will happen when it happens.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

110-year-old cat print

The bricklayer, who's taking off our old bricks and turning them around, told us that our neighbour shows up at all his job sites asking for any cat bricks he finds. He says that in the 19th century, when bricks were laid out to dry, cats sometimes walked across them. (Of course, it would be a cat, not a dog.) People collect these cat bricks.
I thought he was telling stories. It sounds like an urban myth, doesn't it? Then he gave us this brick. Our very own urban fossil!

Monday, October 31, 2011

shopping for fancy tights vs wood stove

Home again. Which is good too, because much as I love being by the sea, I love Montreal as well. Here, we've got hustle and bustle, a mix of people, cultures and languages, a skyline of cornices, shopping for fancy tights, reading on the subway, asparagus that doesn't cost $4 for 12 stalks, and more.
By the sea we have a wood stove and a super wide-screen horizon of water. Except for deciding when to go to bed--and technically you could fall asleep on the sofa--and what to eat, there are no distractions. You could veg until you turn to mulch. Or delve deep into a book--reading or writing--or finish the vest you started knitting eons ago and never got as far as the armhole.
In city terms, that's called going off the grid. One of our neighbours in the Gaspé, who realized that we have no telephone, internet or TV at our house, nodded sagely and called it a "purification". You have to think that word in French said with pursed lips. If I ever wondered how the neighbours out there see us city people who arrive for a couple of weeks a year to tromp along the beach and pick up stones, there I have it. We come for a purification. That's not yogic or meditational or for physical health reasons. That's old-fashioned Roman Catholic purification.
On the last two days by the sea we could feel that winter was coming to the coast. You could smell snow in the air. The wind cut. I needed earplugs--in addition to a hat--to walk by the water. Rain, turning to sleet, lashed the windows. Dramatic skies with towering clouds.
One of the last silly things I did was to take a video of the waves washing up on the beach. Of course, that's silly. I mean... waves. I could watch a video of waves at any time on Youtube. Gorgeous aqua surf off the coast of Australia. A harsh Maritime storm in Cape Breton. People take videos of everything and anything. Recently I wanted to describe a woman's hand movements in a story I was writing. I was thinking of that Lady Macbeth motion that flies do with their front legs. "Out, damn'd spot!" Scrub, scrub. It's been a while since I had a close look at a house fly so I clicked on Youtube. Do you realize how many people have videoed flies?
I hardly needed to video the waves across from our house in the Gaspé--except that no one has taken a video of that particular shale beach with its ad hoc boulders of granite shaped by the deep. And this winter, when I'm holed up at home in the city, I'll enjoy those few moments of salty water splashing the rocks.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

do you like green eggs and moose?

The Gaspé is mostly deserted the last weeks in October. The tourists have fled. The locals are observing the sacred rite of hunting moose. Every able-bodied male is in the woods in the interior of the peninsula, clothed in fleece camouflage, a bottle of liquor surely at hand, gun loaded and hot for a moose. Maybe women hunt too. I don’t know. The quota is one moose per family. I suspect men get the honour.
Traffic on the highway that connects village to village zips by at a fast clip. Cars, transport trucks carrying produce farther along the coast, salesmen, government workers. The pickups and jeep trailers loaded with a moose carcass—hoofs poked at the sky, antlers angled however they can fit—drive more sedately. Out of respect for the moose that’s been shot and brought to the table, or showing off like a carnival float? Look, there’s Jean-Luc. Saturday afternoon, first day of hunting season, and he’s already bagged his moose. He comes home to hang it in the barn and of course goes back. He promised himself a week in the woods with the guys.
I don’t know what it’s like in the woods, but along the highway, which defines the margins of civilization, it looks like moose carnage.
How many moose are there? Enough to allow for every man to kill a moose for every year that he can physically hoist a gun and shoot? Let’s say, seventy moose over seventy years? That’s just for himself and his immediate family. That’s not counting his brothers who have their own families, and his kids when they grow up and get a license to kill for their families. The math makes me shudder. Perhaps it’s just as well that the Gaspé peninsula is so sparsely populated.
I’m sitting in a bistro called La Broue dans l’Toupet, having a pint of excellent Gaspesian beer. Broue means what it sounds like. A toupet is the forehead version of a 1950s ducktail. What’s that called—bangs? a fringe? I don’t know the right term for a man. The bistro has a sign of a man with a luxurious toupet serving an equally coiffed mug of beer. It’s my closest WIFI access—in Mont Louis, a 15-min drive down the coast from where I’ve been holed up writing and walking on the beach.
On the beach I have to tell myself to stop picking up stones. I have decades’ worth already. Zebra striped, quartz eyes, crazed with iron, granite eggs. I can’t keep bringing sea glass home. Drop it, Alice!
I’m mystified by the rock formations that jut from the sand at low tide. They look manmade—like the edges of seats in an ancient Roman ampi-theatre. Tilted plates slid off each other, their side by side rims tracing a perfect arc. Do the endlessly slapping waves shape them like that? Is it tectonic energy? I take pictures of their fractured veins. Their smooth-worn faces like pillows. Shale marbled with iron so it resembles grained wood. I walk at low tide and clamber across the rocks, or at hide tide when the waves wash as far as the sand. The sound relaxes me. It’s good for my heart.

Friday, October 14, 2011

packing to go to the gaspé

You can find the Gaspé on a map north-east of the Maritime provinces in Canada. It’s a fat thumb of land that juts into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. People who aren’t sticklers for geography would say the Atlantic. The water certainly looks big enough—a horizon of blue from ear to ear—to be ocean. There are whales and seals and other saltwater creatures. Newfoundland lies west. The peninsula itself belongs to la belle province, Quebec.
We have an eight or nine (or ten) hour drive from Montreal, depending on how often we take a break, if we get organized to buy food before we leave or need to stop en route.
I’m guessing that now, in mid-October, the leaves have already fallen. The weather is cooler by the water than where we live in Montreal. Any weather network on the computer can tell me that. Or we can call one of the neighbours who give us the more serious updates on the turnip and carrot harvest this fall. (Lousy because of the rain all summer.)
I’m expecting the coastline to look bleak without the benefit of meadows and wildflowers, yellow autumn poplars, a wind-swirled expanse of ice and snow. At this time of year, it will be neither colourful, nor white. In this in-between time when the autumn becomes grim and winter hasn’t started, even the water will be hard rock and mud coloured. Shades of slate and brown and grey. Except, of course, for the big-sky sunsets which are always stunning. The photo included here was taken on a warm day in September last year. We were walking on a back road to the next village. You can't really see on this picture, but the highway hugs the coastline at the base of the hills.
I’m trying to remember if I left a jacket in the closet last time we were there. Will I need boots to walk on the beach? For sure, mittens and a scarf.
When we went in August, I stocked the kitchen with rice, pasta, flours, pulses. All the food needs to be kept in glass jars. I’d thought I could use the refrigerator as a strongbox against mice, but it’s too damp, all sealed and shut up with the power turned off. The last time we went, I found the breadboard—which I’d left in the fridge for some reason—covered with a fine coat of grey mould. Between mice footprints and mould, I think I prefer the mice.
Last weekend we bought a bread-making machine at a thrift shop for $12, so we can now make bread. That will be handy since we’re city dwellers, used to having a bakery with fresh bread close by. I don’t like grocery store bread. But that means I have to remember to bring yeast.
Is it long-john weather yet? Turtlenecks definitely. Big socks.
I should be packing…

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the frog king is a sadomasochist

I’ve been reading Grimms fairy tales, looking for another story to translate. Often the plots are nonsensical or they're simplistic—as in the good guy wins. There are three brothers, the three trips to the river, the three attempts to fell a tree… Contemporary readers like to cut to the chase. We already know that only the third time counts. Who cares about the two losers? Did the 19th century truly revel in this kind of suspense?
I chose a nonsensical story. The Frog King or Iron Heinrich. Note that many English versions translate Heinrich as Henry. Heinrich is a perfectly good name that gives us a sense of the man’s cultural background. In real life I don’t call Dmitri Jimmy or Mehnaz Minnie, so why would I translate Heinrich as Henry? In French versions he gets called Henri.

“The Frog King or Iron Heinrich”
Once upon a time, when wishes were still granted, there lived a king whose daughters…
(Sorry, back up here. This opening leads you to believe that this story is about the granting of wishes. It’s not. Didn’t these books, written in the 1800s, have editors?)
Once upon a time there lived a king whose daughters were all beautiful, but the youngest was so beautiful that the sun itself marvelled when it shone on her face. Near the king’s castle lay a huge forest, and in the forest, under a linden tree, was a stone well.
(The story doesn't specify that it's a stone well, but what do modern readers understand by a well? So I'm telling you that this well is round with a stone wall with a rim wide enough that the king's daughter could sit on it. I know all this because I have the advantage of an illustration.)
When the day was hot, the king’s youngest daughter walked into the forest and sat by the cool well. To pass the time, she played with her favourite toy, a gold ball she threw into the air and caught again.
One day, as she was playing, she missed the gold ball and it dropped to the ground and rolled into the well. She watched the ball sink until it disappeared. The well was so deep that she couldn’t see the bottom. She began to cry and lament, ever louder. Then she heard a voice: “What’s wrong, Princess? The way you’re carrying on, a stone would feel sorry.”
(I’m not interpreting here. The original is familiar. “Du schreist ja…” I think this is unusual for the time, matching the voice of a character to his supposed social station. Try to find that in Austen where even the shady characters articulate with finesse.)
The princess looked around and saw a frog sticking its thick ugly head out of the water.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s you, you old water-splasher. I’m crying because my gold ball fell into the well.”
“So be quiet and stop crying. I can help, but what will you give me if I return your toy?”
“Anything you want, dear frog. My clothes, my pearls, my precious stones, and even the gold crown I wear.”
“Your clothes, your pearls, your precious stones, and even the gold crown don’t interest me. But if you will love me and keep me by you as your friend and companion, and let me sit next to you at the table, eat from your gold plate, and sleep in your bed—if you’ll promise me that—then I’ll go down into the well and get your ball.”
“Yes! I promise whatever you ask!” Though she thought, What stupid notions has that frog dreamt up? He sits in the water with other frogs and croaks. How can he be my friend?
(I can’t get a fix on the king's daughter's age. In the illustration she’s got breasts, but she amuses herself by  playing with a ball. The word the frog uses for companion is “spielkamarad”—like a play date. She’s alternately called the king’s daughter and a child. And yet, at the end of the story…)
When the frog heard her promise, he dipped his head and sank into the water. After a while he swam back up with the ball in his mouth and dropped it in the grass. The king’s daughter was ecstatic to see her beautiful toy again. She grabbed it and leapt away. “Wait!” the frog called. “Take me with you. I can’t run as fast as you.” But what did croaking help? She didn’t listen. She hurried home and soon forgot the frog who had to hop back to his well.
The next day, when the king’s daughter sat at the table with the king and all the courtiers, eating off her gold plate, there came—plitch platch, plitch platch—something crawling up the marble steps. At the top it knocked on the door and called, “Princess, the youngest, open up for me!”

She ran to find out who called, but when she opened the door and saw the frog, she banged it shut again and rushed back to the table, frightened. The king saw that her heart was beating hard.
(This is almost impossible, assuming that she’s dressed—even wearing the décolleté dresses princesses wear—but fairytales have this cartoonish element.)
“My child,” the king said. “Why are you afraid? Is there a giant out there who wants to snatch you away?”
“Not a giant. A disgusting frog.”
“What does the frog want from you?”
“Oh, dear father, yesterday when I was in the forest by the well my gold ball fell in the water. And since I was crying, the frog fetched it for me, and in exchange I promised that he could be my friend. But I didn’t think he could get out of the water. Now he’s outside and he wants in.”
Again there was knocking at the door.
“Princess, Princess, open up!
Don’t you remember your promise
In the dark woods by the cool well?
Princess, Princess, open up!"
The king said, “You know you have to keep your promises. Go open the door.”
(You might wonder that royalty is so principled when it comes to hobnobbing with a frog. But obviously the frog is more than a frog, which you already know because this is a fairytale—and now you know that the king knows as well.)
She went and opened the door and the frog hopped in, following her feet to the chair. From the floor he called, “Lift me up to sit with you.” She hesitated until the king ordered her. She put him on a chair but he wanted to be next to her on the table. Once there, he said, “Now shove your little gold plate closer so we can eat together.” She did it, though she didn’t want to. The frog enjoyed the food, but every small bite stuck in her throat. Then he said, “I’m full now and I’m sleepy. Bring me to your bedroom and turn down the silk sheets so we can lie down to sleep.”
(Don’t assume that since Grimm’s are for children, there’s no sexual connotation. In quite a few of these fairytales people go to sleep only to have a child in the next paragraph.)
The king’s daughter began to cry because she didn’t want to touch the cold frog, much less have him next to her in her clean pretty bed. The king grew angry and said, “He, who helped you when you were in need, should not be repaid with scorn.”
She pinched the frog with two fingers, carried him upstairs and dropped him in a corner. Once she was in bed, he crept across the floor and said, “I’m tired. I want to sleep too. Lift me up or I’ll tell your father.” Indignant now, she grabbed the frog and threw him as hard as she could against the wall. “There, get your rest, you disgusting frog!”
As he fell, he changed from a frog into a young king with beautiful friendly eyes. He was the beloved companion and spouse her father had chosen for her, but a wicked witch had cast a spell on him. No one could free him but herself. Tomorrow they would go to his kingdom together.
(Now. I ask you. If this man/frog was your friend, would you advise him to continue in this projected relationship? Admittedly, he’s no longer a frog. But she’s clearly bad news. She used him when it suited her purposes then spurned him. There’s that niggly issue of not respecting her promises. Why is he looking at her with “beautiful friendly eyes”? She’s not someone I’d want as a friend, much less a companion and wife. If he marries her, he’ll be plitching-platching after her for the rest of his life, whether he’s a king or a frog.)
They fell asleep, and the next morning, as the sun woke them, a carriage with eight white horses appeared. Each horse had ostrich feathers on its head and was harnessed with gold chains. Behind the horses stood the young king’s valet, loyal Heinrich. Loyal Heinrich had been so upset when his master was turned into a frog that he had three iron bands fastened around his chest to keep his heart from shattering with the pain and the sadness.
(Heinrich and his king are a well-matched pair in their penchant for punishment. One makes friendly eyes when he gets thrown against the wall; the other straps iron ribs around his chest.)
Loyal Heinrich handed the young couple into the carriage and climbed on the back seat, his heart filled with happiness for the king’s deliverance.
The carriage travelled only a short while when the king heard a crack behind him. He turned around and called, “Heinrich, the carriage is breaking.”
“No, Master, not the carriage.
The band on my heart
Which lay in great pain
As you sat in the well
When you were a frog.”
Again there was crack and then another. Every time the king believed the carriage was breaking, but it was only the bands around loyal Heinrich’s chest, because his heart was so happy.

I’m not sure what purpose the Heinrich add-on serves in this story, except as a parallel to emphasize that loyalty—as in the princess being forced to honour her promise—is iron-clad. Heinrich’s name changes from iron Heinrich in the title to loyal Heinrich in the story.
But if this story is about loyalty, then why is loyalty so badly served? The young king ends up with a bride who has a temper and no sense of honour. Not that he’s any better. His valet has bound his chest in iron bands that burst with happiness now that the king is released from the spell. Yet the king would sooner believe the carriage is breaking. Loyal Heinrich doesn’t even get a thank you for his act of homage.
Re: my translations of Grimm’s. I don’t pretend that they’re word for word exact. However, I try to honour the tone and content of the story. After I translated this, I looked at some other versions. I was puzzled by one that had the characters talking in thee’s and thou’s. “When thou werst in need.” There’s no call for this. The Grimm’s brothers were contemporaries of Jane Austen, not Shakespeare.

Friday, September 23, 2011

a mechanical or a pig heart

Yesterday R and I met with a cardiac surgeon to discuss my heart. The aortic and mitral valves need to be replaced. These are the intake and output valves on the engine. I know the actual anatomical working isn't  that simplistic, but visualizing it like this helps me understand what’s going on in a way that the words atrium and diastolic don’t.

I  knew that I needed the valves replaced before seeing the surgeon so I wasn’t knocked off my chair by the news. We met with him to discuss options. Namely, what to replace my currently dysfunctional valves with: a tissue (pig) valve or a mechanical valve.

The advantage of the tissue valve is that it mimics the human valve best. When a tissue valve starts to degenerate, the process is gradual. I would get short of breath, etc. I would have all the symptoms I’m experiencing now and know that it was time to have surgery again.

That’s the disadvantage of a tissue valve. I would need to have my chest sawn open again in less than ten years. I’ve already had this done once. I’m not looking forward to having it done again. I don’t know that I’m up for a third date.

However, a tissue valve would be the best bet for a woman who still intended to have babies, which is not my case. That the doctor even mentioned babies was sort of cute.

The mechanical valve unfortunately looks like something that belongs in a gasoline-operated lawnmower. I admit I’m not mechanically inclined. Two plastic flippy lids that open and shut inside a ring don’t instil me with confidence. And I should get two of these in my heart? I don’t know.

In order to keep a mechanical valve functioning, I’ll have to take a blood thinner which will turn me into a walking bruise. Believe me, at the rate that I walk into doorframes and trip, it will. Not that a bruise would kill me. But a hemorrhage could.

The advantage of a mechanical valve is that it doesn’t deteriorate. I wouldn’t need surgery again. At least not to replace the valves. If a mechanical valve stops opening and shutting, there’s no time to do surgery again. From one minute to the next, the heart stops. The doctor assured me that was a rare case scenario. I was the one who brought it up, not him.

Basically, my decision will be between living with anti-coagulants or looking forward to another heart surgery. Assuming that I live another 10 years and that this surgery goes well. Knock on wood.

Monday, September 19, 2011

brick buddhists

We’re still having our brick redone. The old bricks taken off and turned around. Because of the configuration of the house, there are three back walls. At the rate that the bricklayers work, they might still be there by Halloween. Hopefully not Christmas. We’re paying for the job, not by the hour, so I don’t mind how long it takes—as long as we’re not left with an exposed wall once winter hits.

The guys are usually parked in the alley by 7 am. They sit in their van knocking back power drinks and smoking until 8 or 8:30. Gearing up. Chatting. They arrive early because they would sooner sit in the alley than in traffic.

Do you know this about Montreal? It’s on an island. People who live off-island and have to cross one of the few bridges every day to get to work and home again suffer from chronic stress debilitation. Or they pop meds. Or they leave home before dawn, like our bricklayers, to avoid the congestion.

I can hear when the bricklayers decide to start work because one of the guys bangs the ancient mortar  mixer with a shovel to unjam the parts crusted with the previous day’s mortar. He eventually gets the mixer moving and churns up a bucket of fresh mortar. He’s the gopher who stays on the ground, hauls rope, carries bricks. The other two hoist themselves up the scaffolding and start wielding their trowels.

That aspect of their work—spreading mortar, gently placing a brick, scraping a neat line with the tip of the trowel—would look graceful if it weren’t so dirty. Our windows are streaked with mortar, the deck heaped with rubble, broken bricks, chunks of old mortar, empty water bottles. Both outdoors lights and the back gate is broken. We’ve got only a tiny backyard with a sand cherry tree, a sumac, a few raspberry bushes, enough lawn to host a party of four. Forget the party. Any greenery we had wears a ghost of brick and mortar dust. My bicycle tires are wedged in mud. (Or mortar. I’m afraid to check.)

Most of the time I try not to look at the chaos outside. The bricklayers have said they’ll clean up before they leave. They don’t ascribe to the view that if you clean up as you go along, you won’t have as much to clean up at the end. Everyone has their own method. I'm not sure I would ever finish writing a book if I took as relaxed a view as the bricklayers do, but I'm obsessive-compulsive about writing. I know that.

Once these guys are up on the scaffolding, they stay there until noon. There’s not much to do up there but remove bricks or lay them, so work proceeds steadily. They talk while they work, mostly about work. They play music (1990s rock?) which I don't hear because the windows are closed against the clouds of mortar dust. If they're happy while they're working, then I'm happy too.

Lunch break, however, can herald a turning point in mood. Some days they stop for lunch and start again in an hour. Some days they disappear for the rest of the afternoon. Once the gopher trailed back on his own, but what could he do by himself?

The one and a half walls that are finished are gorgeous: old brick with clean edges. The original brick from  1902 came from three different factories, so the colours are variegated.

Most brick houses in Montreal are wooden houses encased in brick. Ours is a brick shell with a brick exterior. You can recognize this kind of house from the outside. Instead of bricks placed lengthwise, row upon row upon row, you’ll see the short end of a brick—the head—facing you every so many rows. This brick joins the inner brick wall with the outer brick wall.

In English this brick is called a bull-header which sort of makes sense. The short end of a brick is the header and I suppose it looks bullish facing the world as it does. In French—at least here in Quebec—it’s called a buddhist. Why? The bricklayers can’t tell me and the term isn’t listed in my dictionary of Quebecois expressions.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

recycling brick

The incessant thump these days is a mallet and chisel. We’re having the brick on the house redone. It dates from 1902 when the house was built: a row house with a flat roof and cornice, as is common in Point St. Charles in southwest Montreal. (For a standard Point cornice, see the blog photo above.)
When we bought the house ten years ago, we sometimes noticed a shard of brick on the deck in the winter. Broken clay in the white snow. Hard to miss. Every winter more bits of brick flake and pop off the walls. The snow gets peppered.
We've heard lots of theories as to why this happens—as many as there are people willing to hypothesize. It could be the heat escaping from a poorly insulated house. It could be pockets of moisture that expand and contract. It could be the layer of paint a previous owner slathered on the brick, thus sealing what should ideally be porous. (Except that I’ve seen pieces of brick on the ground below unpainted brick houses.) Etc, etc.
I don’t know what the answer is. Our brick pops and the mortar between the bricks is aged and thin like a measly layer of stone jam. We asked about sandblasting, which looks great, but apparently weakens the brick. And we would still have to repoint the mortar. Replacing the brick would cost as much as we paid for the house. No thanks. Some people cover their ageing brick with siding. I don’t like the look of siding. Everyone gave us different advice depending on what they were selling. We wondered if eventually we would have a house left. Perhaps in twenty years, if we didn’t fix the brick, we would be living in rooms with only inside walls.
Last summer I noticed a man working on a neighbour’s house. He was up on the scaffolding, chiselling away the old bricks and turning them around so the inside edge faced outward.
What a great idea! Recycling the old brick which is of higher quality—denser—than most of the new brick used now. And beautiful! All that lovely hundred-year old brick given a new life.

Monday, August 22, 2011

cinema blues

Film festivals are a fantastic forum to see films that normally don't get distributed. This past weekend, as R and I discuss which films to go to at the Montreal International Film Fest, I'm cautious about choosing whereas he, more optimistic, claims we've never seen a real stinker. Ah no? What about that Turkish film where we sat through ten minutes of a camera closeup on a woman screaming? Or that Portuguese film that bored us to nausea?
Reading the write-ups is a lesson in good and bad advertising. The Finnish film I chose Saturday only barely resembled the blurb for content and not at all for tone. Believe me, I would not knowingly pick a feel-good, fluffy movie. I was reluctant to see the German film R wanted to see Sunday because the photo was so over-the-top melodramatic--a grief-stricken man, hugging a young woman to his chest as a young man stood by, red-faced and weeping. But it was a quirky funny-sad film.
In Montreal you get the chance to read both the English and the French blurbs which are sometimes so different, you wonder if they're even describing the same film. So that's neat--the different angles.
On the whole, my rule when choosing is to pick films I don't expect to have the chance to see again. Those small budget films from the Netherlands, Morocco, Argentina, South Korea. See them now or see them never.
Normally I'm allergic to crowds, but I understand perfectly that at a film festival--a good film festival--there will be lineups to buy tickets and lineups to get into the cinema. I accept the conditions.
I don't even mind when we see a movie that disappoints. You pick a film. You go. The 106 minutes that follow are the luck of the draw.
My BIG GRIPE is with the asshole ignoramuses who FRICKIN TALK THROUGH THE MOVIE. Can't they wait until they leave to start discussing it? Are they so mentally challenged that they constantly have to ask each other who the characters are and what's going on? If they ask what he just said, then they won't hear what she's saying now. NOR WILL I. They are not in their own living room. They are in a public cinema.
Some people don't get it. (Granted, they can't follow a simple plot. Why should they understand the difference between public and private behaviour?) I turn around and tell them to be quiet and they still whisper. R turns around and hisses and they stop for a few moments only to start again. There is never a cinema where someone in the audience isn't whispering, convinced that whatever insight or question they compulsively have to share is worth disturbing those who sit nearby.
One day there will be a story in the news about a woman throttling an innocent stranger in a cinema. The victim won't be innocent. The victim was TALKING.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

salty doors

We stole a few days away from Montreal to head out to the Gaspé. Seagulls and hot peach sunsets. Beach shacks selling shrimp poutines.
Even on a warm sunny day, the air is damp. The wildflowers—Goldenrod, Chicory, Purple Loosestrife—are hyper-brilliant. The grass around the house is tender and rich as butter lettuce, the pile thick and luxuriant as a carpet. When I walk to the shed, my footprints leave a diagonal trail.
R and I have been discussing the door on Madonne’s house, which is now ours. The ugly metal door faces the water—ie the wind off the water. When we were here last March, the wind whipped snow in horizontal swathes of punishing white. That day the car was completely buried in snow three times. Three times we dug it out to start the engine. The door of this house has withstood many such storms. Gale force winds, battering rain, a higher concentration of salt than people put on their fries.
Originally the door was factory grey. At some point it was painted red to match the trim around the windows. Maybe ten years ago the trim and the door were painted yellow.
I used to wonder about the bright colours of Maritime houses—hot mustard, carnation pink, aquamarine. Last winter when we drove down the coast--with white snow, grey rock and black trees on one side, and snow and a grey horizon of ice on the other--I was glad for these shouts of colour along the road.
We haven’t decided yet what colour we’ll paint our house which is a dirty white now with yellow trim, flaking here and there. The house should be painted, but the upstairs is still a construction zone of roughly sawn boards. Downstairs, a small unit of kitchen cupboards have only just been installed. What to do next is a constant game of priorities, especially since we only come every few months.
Of course, the neighbours want the house painted. Thérèse, especially, feels entitled to an opinion because her brother, Madonne's father, built the house 70-odd yrs ago. Thérèse lives down the road in a two-story saltbox with ten dozen cats. When R brought her the old doors from our house (broken, some only 5 feet high) that she asked to have for firewood, she gave him a pair of wool socks she’d knit. The socks are so thick that they don’t fit inside shoes or boots. Basically they are boots. As I'm writing, I see Thérèse on the side of the road with her large turquoise purse, thumb out whenever a car drives by.
I spent Saturday going through Madonne’s old dishes, deciding what to keep. There were thirty soup spoons but only two forks. Cut-glass pickle dishes. Parfait glasses. I don’t do parfait. Pickles... only occasionally. Straight from the jar is fine with me. What did Madonne do with so many carving knives and serving forks? How much roast did she eat? (A car just stopped to pick up Thérèse.) I filled two boxes with soup spoons, tin Expo 67 platters, church-bazaar flowered plates, teacups and saucers. We’ll take the boxes back to Montreal where we’ll put them on the sidewalk. They’ll be emptied—every last cookie cutter and snail fork—in no time. We live in a neighbourhood of garbage aficionados.
We’ll paint the house eventually. We thought we’d change the door too. The latest coat of yellow has blistered, exposing the weathered red—equally corroded—beneath. Rusty fissures gape on grey metal. The effects of salt and wind and rain and cold. But the door itself is solid. I wish our door in Montreal fit so well in the frame. It's a good door. We’ve decided to keep it.
I wish R luck trying to explain environmental art to Thérèse.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

organizing junk

Perhaps not everyone, but most people like to arrange things. Books in alphabetical order; spices on one shelf; canned goods on another; screwdrivers by size; a flowerbed of red geraniums bordered with blue lobelia; bridesmaids from taller to shorter. You go here, you go here. The arrangements aren’t always neat, but objects (and ideas) get grouped.
What is that arranging impulse? It follows us even into death. When I went to the Anthropology Museum in Mexico City this past spring, I took pictures of burial arrangements.

Everything in its place with the idols out front. Presumably there was food, which has since decomposed, in the bowls. Each object here has meaning—or we assume it does because it’s here. Arranging gives value, even if it’s only subjective.
A couple of months ago I noticed that someone has been collecting junk and arranging it under the overpass east of the Maxi on Wellington St. heading into Verdun. At first the junk was literally bags of garbage. Old clothes I suspect he rifled from the donations box in the Maxi parking lot. Overstretched sweatpants and T-shirts scattered in heaps. Then he added a discarded chair. Some empty detergent bottles he could have scooped from a recycling box.
I know it’s a “he” because R has seen him when he jogs by in the early evening. There’s no one when I cycle past in the morning. The site is in permanent shadow because of the overpass. The concrete backdrop has arches, lending the suggestive air of an ancient temple. Garbage as artifacts from a consumer civilization. Every two or three weeks, the city clears the space.
He begins again. Each new exhibition grows more inventive. He’s got the passion for junk, he does. The messy heaps have been replaced by strategic arrangements. Here, a women’s pink bikini bottoms—which might have fallen from a bag after she changed when leaving the pool, or been a discard after sex. Here, a twisted length of glittery wrapping paper from a birthday party. A long-sleeved shirt with one arm stretched, the other folded: flagman on the ground.
This past weekend all the smaller objects were rearranged around an intact car bumper. A blue beret propped on top.  A defunct printer. A red platform shoe with a bow on an open magazine. A pink thermos.

Each new arrangement of garbage looks less like junk and more like a cultural event. Which makes me wonder if the arranging impulse that prompts people to stack their bowls in one cupboard and their mugs in another isn’t the rationalistic impulse it seems, but some nascent desire for artistry. ??
Quick, someone fund a SPECT scan to see which side of the brain has more blood flow during organizing.

Monday, July 25, 2011

ugly fan nostalgia

This is a vintage Westinghouse fan from the 1950s. It doesn't oscillate. The base is made of heavy metal--like cast iron--painted a pinkish taupe. Weird colour. The motor heats when the fan is plugged in. The plug is the only on/off switch.
A few years ago my father found the fan in some back closet and asked if I wanted it. Since I'm the least obviously successful of his children in terms of yearly income and possession of a vehicle (I have two bicycles and a bus pass), he frequently offers me cast-off goods no one else wants. Old televisions. A weigh scale. Tools.
The fan's steady blow and drone take me right back to childhood. That weird colour too.
R and I have other fans, but at some point in the summer I grab this one and plug it in. R objects because the whirring blades are more or less exposed. Back in the 50s enough people hadn't had their fingers chopped off yet for the designers to understand that the blades should be enclosed in a grill. That still had to happen.
R worries that I'm going to forget the fan, which sounds like a rumbling truck and blows a domestic-size gale, and accidentally flap a hand through the blades. It's true I'm clumsy. I knock over glasses. Walk into door frames. Bang myself on edges. Not just at home. I do it at work too. People know better than to toss me anything. It will land on the floor.
But I figure that I got through childhood with that fan on an end table in the living room and I still have both  hands. It's not going to attack me now.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

prague 1990

A few weeks ago a friend returned from Prague. He called it storybook gorgeous.
I went to Prague in 1990. My first impressions, arriving in March in the evening, were storybook eerie. There were hardly any cars in the streets. Few pedestrians. Dim apartment buildings. Sooty walls. No billboards, neon lights, advertisements, streetlights.
It had taken us four hours to drive the 250 kilometres (155 miles) from Vienna, because the two-lane road twisted through villages of sagging houses and barns. We had to stop for sheep being herded from one muddy field to another. Large trumpet-shaped speakers were attached to poles and trees. Hello, Big Brother.
Several months earlier the Communist party of Czechoslovakia had relinquished power. The Russians were gone. The barbed wire—the Iron Curtain—between the borders of Czechoslovakia with West Germany and Austria were dismantled.
R and I had come with my Austrian uncle who worked as a building manager for one of the first luxury hotels to be constructed in post-Communist Prague. For the drive my uncle had stocked up on large bottles of Coke and boxes of ballpoint pens. When the police stopped him for speeding, as they did several times, he gave them Coke or pens. The only other make of car on the road was a Russian Skoda which had been fixed to go no faster than 50 k/hr—according to my uncle. He’d been working in Prague for a year and was generally cynical about the city and the country.
We stayed with him in his Eastern-European-ritzy apartment: velvet corduroy sofa, inlaid wood furniture, chandelier, gauzy curtains. The bathroom had a claw foot tub the length of a porcelain coffin, but water only dribbled from the faucet.
My uncle went to work and left us to explore the city. Morning sunlight warmed the clay-tiled roofs and made the city look more friendly. We wandered without a map because we couldn’t find one for sale. We saw more people—and saw where all the fashions overstocked and outdated in the West ended up. Elephant pants. Plaid jackets. In turn we got surreptitious looks for our peg-leg jeans. Talk in cafés was loud and animated. Walls were covered with posters of Václav Havel. People stood in clusters before bookstore windows where foreign books, forbidden up until a few months ago, were propped on lecterns.
We admired the architecture—the spires, cupolas, chimneys and gables. The long Gothic windows. The heavy Baroque archways. The towers with their fancy headdresses. A terraced cobblestone walkway. The Karlov Bridge. The broad Vltava River.
Of course, we noticed the decay. Flaking stucco. Crumbling stonework. Centuries-old architecture needs upkeep which had been neglected during the Communist decades. Soot covered the buildings and statues. People heated with coal. When I returned home after five days in Prague, the collar of my blond suede jacket was black.

Communism was over, but shopping was still Communist era. People stood at a counter to ask for the few packages or cans on the shelves. Beets, noodles, tomatoes, carrots. A shop assistant handed them across. Once the cans and packages were gone, there was nothing left to buy. The shop assistant stayed at the counter in front of the empty shelves, because that was her job. Or there might be goods on the shelf, but no shop assistant because it was her lunch break. People waited in line for her to return in half an hour.
Traffic through the pharmacy was controlled by the shopping baskets. There were only a dozen. You weren’t allowed in the store without a basket. If there were no baskets, you had to wait for a basket to be free—even if it was only to buy toothpaste. The colourful tiny boxes next to the cash were condoms which I discovered by buying one and opening the box. Tiny boxes for tiny condoms.
The lights in the National Museum flickered. Some were completely burnt out. When I asked, I was told that there were no light bulbs.
There was no coffee. What was served in the cafés was roasted chicory that settled in the nether murk of the cup. Black sludge.
I didn’t trust the water coming out of the taps which was rusty yellow or cloudy, but there was no bottled water. Beer was plentiful and cheap with a creamy head of foam, but at some point one begins to crave water.
My uncle took us to a restaurant where one could only pay in American dollars, English pounds or Deutsche marks. My uncle insisted we have the venison with lingonberry sauce. Several bottles of red wine were uncorked and set on the table. I begged the waiter for water. He reappeared with a bottle of Evian which he held out for my approval. When my uncle got the bill, he arched his eyebrows. He said that he hoped I enjoyed the water.
R wanted to buy his father a pipe. There were two styles in the store, both cheaply made. We asked in another store and were shown the same two models. The shopkeeper said, There’s no point going from store to store. These are the only pipes and they cost the same wherever you buy them.
That was Prague—what I remember of Prague—from twenty-one years ago.
Footnote: In June 1990 the first democratic elections since 1946 were held and Vàclav Havel was elected.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

rapunzel has a transesophageal echocardiogram

Well, NO, Rapunzel didn’t because the fancy doodad ultrasonic probe wasn’t in use for cardiac testing until the 1970s, and the Grimm’s brothers published their story in 1812.
At least being imprisoned in a tower kept Rapunzel isolated from germs. Smallpox. Leprosy. Typhus. Streptococcus.
If streptococcus isn’t treated with antibiotics, which hadn’t been discovered yet in once-upon-a-time, it develops into scarlet or rheumatic fever. (There were antibiotics when I was growing up, but that’s another story.)
Rheumatic fever scars the heart valves. And whereas some scars fade, rheumatic scars are aggressive. The valves get stiffer and thicker. They become stenotic—which is a great word: a narrowing constriction. I can think of relationships I’d call stenotic.
My understanding of the heart is very simple. I think of it as a pump that sends blood to the lungs to be oxygenated and then through the body. The valves are the tubes through which the blood flows. A damaged rheumatic valve isn’t as efficient as a healthy valve.
A cardiologist keeps track of how well the valve functions with an echocardiogram or ultrasound of the heart. This is a non-invasive procedure where a technician traces a probe across your chest. The probe picks up echoes of sound waves to form a picture. Sometimes the technician forgets that the object being examined is a human body and digs the probe into your ribs. That hurts. With all due respect for science, this test isn’t supposed to leave you with bruises.
A much better picture of the valves can be obtained with a transesophageal echocardiogram. That’s right, down the throat. The probe can get right behind the heart without any flesh, fat or ribs in the way.
Still. Down the throat. Ugh.
You lie on an examining table next to an expensive machine. For this test you need to sign a consent because it’s an invasive procedure (into your body) and something could go wrong. The most serious risk is a perforated esophagus, in which case you will need to be rushed to the operating room. When you sign, you acknowledge that you understand the risk—so, yeah, make sure someone explains it to you. Don’t worry though. The risk of perforation is minuscule—less than 0.05%. And hey, what choice do you have? Free will and self-determination won’t get you far if you don’t have a viable, functioning heart.
The technician will start an intravenous. If you’ve had tests or blood drawn before and know where you have a good vein, now is the time to share. You’ll save yourself a lot of painful poking. I’m not saying it won’t hurt anyhow, but one good stab as opposed to a dozen is eleven less stabs as I see it.
The intravenous allows immediate access to sedate you. I’ve had this test before. Twice awake, once completely knocked out. This time I thought I’d like to eavesdrop on what the docs were saying and so asked for a minimum of sedation. They thought that was weird, and in retrospect I agree. I couldn’t understand all the talk about gradients and they had to keep upping the dose because I was gagging on the probe. Sorry, if that’s TMI but this is a post about a TEE, not window-shopping on rue Ste-Catherine.
Next the technician gives you a thick fluorescent liquid in a cup to gargle with and swallow. I suspect it’s partly antiseptic (because hospitals like to use bright pink for antiseptic soaps) and partly numbs your throat. Though I didn’t ask. I was already in that Zen headspace I go into when I’m at the dentist’s. Do what you have to and let me get the fuck out of here.
Now that I’m prepped and lying on my side, the good doctor enters the room. I get a white plastic mouth guard shoved in my mouth—like hockey players wear to protect their teeth, though this one protects the probe. No one wants a patient chomping down.
A little sedation and the doctor begins to ease the probe down my throat. Two doctors and the technician discuss what they see on the screen, tap buttons, measure percentages, disagree on interpretation of the numbers, then decide to agree.
All very civilized over the prone misery of my body. The probe feels like the handle of a wooden cooking spoon stirring in my chest. A very weird sensation in a place where I don’t expect to feel movement. I’m not sure if being aware of it is worth being conscious. I distract myself trying to figure out how to describe how it feels.
Best, of course, would be not to have this test—or rheumatic valves—at all.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

spinning spinsters (another grimm's fairytale)

The Three Spinners was one of my favourite Grimms stories as a child. I loved the upside-down logic where laziness and sneakiness were rewarded. And I love the illustrations. The three spinners are ugly, but in an endearing sort of way. Here's one:

Beaked nose. Enormous thumb. Top teeth missing. But she's got a frill on her bonnet and she's sort of smiling.
Of course, these spinners have nothing to do with spandex and indoor cycling. This is old-fashioned spinning as in twisting animal or plant fiber to make yarn.
In this story a girl was so lazy that, no matter how much her mother scolded and threatened her, she wouldn't even touch a spinning wheel. Her obstinacy filled her mother with such rage--one of my favourite German words, Zorn--that she beat the girl until she screamed.
The queen, who happened to be riding by, heard the girl's cries and entered the house to ask the mother why she was hitting her daughter. The woman was ashamed--not to have been caught hitting the girl, but to have to explain that the girl was so lazy. (Yet another Grimm's fairy tale mother. Are there any nice moms in these stories?)
The mother thought quickly and said, "My daughter won't stop spinning and I'm so poor that I can't afford flax."
Flax is the plant fiber that's spun to make linen. Nowadays we mostly know flax for its seeds which apparently reduce cholesterol.
The queen said, "I love nothing better than the sound of a spinning wheel. Give me your daughter and I will bring her to my castle and give her flax galore."
The mother was delighted. (To be rid of her daughter? To think of how her daughter would be punished if she didn't spin?)
The queen brought the girl to her castle where she had three rooms filled from the floor to the ceiling with flax. "Spin all this," she said, "and I will give you my eldest son for a husband. It doesn't matter if you are poor if you can show me your cheerful labour."
The girl was terrified since she couldn't spin. Once the queen left, she cried and sat for three days by the spinning wheel without moving. On the third day the queen returned and was surprised to see that the girl hadn't touched the flax. The girl said she was too homesick for her mother. The queen said she understood. "But tomorrow you have to begin to work." (No pushover, this queen.)
Alone again, the girl stood at the window despairing. There she saw three women walking along. One had a broad flat foot; the second an underlip so thick and heavy that it hung down her chin; the third an enormous thumb.

The three women asked the girl what was wrong. "Hm," they said. "If you'll invite us to your wedding, call us your cousins without shame, and invite us to sit at the table with you, we can spin that flax for you in no time."
"Oh please," the girl begged.
The three women set to work. One drew the fiber and rocked her foot on the treadle of the spinning wheel. The next slid the yarn along her lip. The third wound the bobbin and slapped her thumb on the table. Each time she slapped her thumb another bobbin of gleaming yarn dropped to the floor.
The queen came every day to check on the girl's progress. The girl hid the three women (where?) and showed her the bobbins of finely spun linen. The queen praised her no end.

The three women finished in the first room, the second, and the third. When they left, they reminded the girl of her promise. "Do what you said and you will get your reward."
When the queen saw the rooms empty of flax and the great heap of bobbins, she began to plan the wedding. Her son was pleased to be getting such a clever and busy wife.
The girl said, "I have three cousins who have always been good to me. I don't want to forget them now. Please let me invite them to sit with us at the wedding."
"Why not?" the queen and her son answered.
When the wedding festivities were well underway, the three "spinsters" arrived in magnificent finery.
Note that only now, at this point in the story, are they called spinsters--Jungfern. Earlier in the story they're referred to as spinners--Spinnerinnen. It was so time-consuming to spin yarn that only unmarried women could devote themselves to it. So the concept evolved in general, and as a specific word in English. In the mid 1400s a spinster was a woman who spun thread. By the 1600s a spinster was a woman who had never married.
The bride said, "Welcome, dear cousins."
The groom said, "Goodness, they look nasty."
He approached the first one and asked, "How did you get such a broad flat foot?"
"From treadling the spinning wheel," she said. "From treadling."
He asked the second, "What happened to your lip that it hangs like that?"
"From licking the thread," she said. "From licking."
"And you?" he asked the third. "Why do you have such a huge thumb?"
"From winding the thread on the bobbin. From winding the thread."
The queen's son drew back, alarmed. "That settles it. Never again will my beautiful bride touch a spinning wheel."
Thus was the lazy girl rid of the hateful task of spinning.

So what is the message of this story?
With help, you can disguise your laziness.
Ugly strangers can be more helpful than your mother.
Remember your promises.
Vary your activities or you'll end up deformed.

Monday, June 20, 2011

cycling in montreal

The popular bike path in Montreal is along the Lachine Canal. I find the prettiest stretch lies west of the Atwater Market, heading out to Lachine. My favourite time is during the week in the morning--or early evening when the sun slants through the trees and the water in the canal gleams tourmaline.
At other times you have to navigate the congestion at the Atwater Market; the in-line skaters hypnotized by the line down the center of the path; the moms and dads who've decided to teach their darling child how to stay upright (on the most busy cycling thoroughfare in the city); the clumps of friends who want to talk while they cycle and obstruct the path.
Uh-uh. On weekends and on sunny days the path by the canal is way too crazy for me.
I wait for cloudy days. I cycle weekday mornings.
I prefer the path that follows the St. Lawrence River. It curves past poplars with figure skater skirt leaves flipping in the breeze. Now, in mid-June, there's a luscious scent of sun-warmed cassis. I don't know where it comes from. There are no black currant bushes. The path swoops toward the river--a broad stretch of blue, grey, or brown water depending on the sky, the wind, the weather.
I pass the regulars who are out walking when I cycle.
A woman in a sleeveless, crimson dress to her ankles. I wonder if she washes the dress in the evening. (Because if it were me, wearing the same dress to walk every day, it would smell.)
A woman in baggy white shorts with her hair piled on her head like she's going to a ball. I've seen her since I started cycling on this path in 2003.
There used to be a man who walked tilted to one side. He's disappeared this year. I saw him in Verdun, in LaSalle, in Lachine--kilometers apart, always at that tilt. What can have happened that he doesn't walk anymore?
An exercise gang of new moms with prams follow a commandant who shouts orders. Twist to the right! Knees up! She barks so loudly that out in the river a heron flies off.
Today the man with the lizard strolls by the path. The lizard is grey with a ridged back. The man wears it draped down his chest with its head curled behind his neck. Clingy. Even the tail hugs his waist. Reptiles like body warmth.
I cycle, I cycle. Pump my legs, soak up some Vitamin D.
I always forget that when the ride is really smooth, there's probably a strong wind behind me. Ie cycling on the way back will be hard. The reverse is true too, but somehow that never consoles me when I'm panting into the wind.
Here's where I rest. The frill of water in the distance is the beginning of the Lachine Rapids. The trees aren't the other side of the river, but an island... Île aux Chèvres.
Some days I can hardly credit my good fortune to live in a city the size of Montreal (3 million people?) and have access to such a refreshing green space.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

how to clean amber

I wrote a previous post on how to clean amber. A LOT of people have looked at it. I'm clearly not the only one who didn't know that amber can't get wet or the surface gets cloudy.
The best solution I could find was to soak the amber for 10 days in almond oil which restored the shine 95%. A certain Wendy commented that she'd used natural toothpaste to buff her ruined amber. Then she applied another light coat of toothpaste, let it dry, buffed it again. She used Kingfisher brand which I think is only available in the UK. I used The Green Beaver Company (Canada).
My ring is now 100%. Very happy. Thank you, Wendy!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

on writing

Last week I had an appointment with my hairdresser. She has a chirpy personality. Most often I'm the one who sounds curt. This time she didn't even pretend to make small-talk. She couldn't find the clips she'd misplaced, kept dropping her comb. I finally asked if she was taking vacation this summer. She said yes. Nothing else. Then she spun around and yelled at the receptionist: If he ever walks in here again, you call the police!
Of course I asked what happened. A client has been leaving threatening messages on her answering machine. He knows where she lives, where she works, her schedule. A few guy friends have offered to rough him up, which would be fine with her, except that she's worried he might carry a knife or they'll go too far and she'll be implicated. She doesn't want to call the police because she doesn't trust them.
I think she has good reason to be frightened. I agreed that roughing him up could have consequences. I suggested she get one of her helpful guy friends to accompany her home when she finishes work.
Then, when I left the salon, she grabbed my arm and said, See! I'm the one who should be writing a book!
I'm not sure how we got from her anxiety about this asshole to writing a book. I understand she's frightened and that makes her feel she's at the center of a drama.
But let's face it: in itself the story isn't all that interesting. A young woman invites a man she hardly knows back to her place. She decides she doesn't want to see him again. He begins to stalk her. Of course, her fear is large and real and potent. I'm not referring to the hairdresser anymore, but a possible character. I'm talking about the potential for a story. Even if the worst were to happen, it would still be predictable. Almost moralistic. Look what happens when you invite a man you don't know home. And if the worst doesn't happen, why write this story? To explore the gradations of fear?
...Okay, there's stuff you could do to make this story interesting. For sure.
My point is that what makes a story interesting has virtually nothing to do with the original event that sparked the idea for a story (assuming you're the kind of writer who gets ideas from things that happen). Writing fiction is about character development, conflict, ideas, atmosphere, language, plot, images--not about things that happen. Lots of things happen. They can happen quickly and tear your life asunder. For example, someone close to you has a car accident and dies. It takes only an instant to happen. If you want to turn that emotionally volatile experience into a story, get ready to spend months, perhaps even years shaping it. And if, in the process of writing, you don't see new directions that will improve the story as a story, then you're probably missing the point. In my opinion.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

sea pie and the linda besner effect

Last weekend I saw a whale, a fox, and enormous moose prints in the neighbour's strawberry garden. She was so awed by the idea of a humongous moose slouching past our houses that she didn't mind the few squashed leaves.
We drove out to the Gaspé for a few days. It's 700 kilometers (450 miles) northeast from Montreal along the St. Lawrence River. I know this is childish, but it tickles me no end that this same river passes close by our place in Montreal. Most mornings in the summer in the city I cycle by the river. In the Gaspé our windows face the very same river--except that here it's so wide, you can't see the other side. It's no longer a river here but the Gulf: salt water with waves and whales and seals and who knows what else. I don't know near enough about marine life.
I know my way somewhat better around words. Or I thought I did. This weekend I discovered that the word river in English doesn't translate as rivière in French. When I told the neighbour that I like to cycle by la rivière in Montreal, she had no idea where I meant. Where in Montreal was there a rivière? I couldn't understand why she was so puzzled. The island of Montreal sits in the St. Lawrence River! Ah, she said, you mean le fleuve? Ah... right. In French the St. Lawrence River is called le Fleuve Saint-Laurent. I didn't know that the French word rivière refers to a only small waterway. Whereas in English a river can be quite big. The St. Lawrence. The Mississippi.
Here's a word you would only encounter in the maritime villages along the St. Lawrence, and specifically in the Gaspé: cipaille. It's a pie originally made with game and cooked for many hours at very slow heat. The dough becomes infused with the meat juices, the chunks of meat very tender. Nowadays cipaille is made with pork, beef, and veal. A layer of cubed meat, a layer of potato, a layer of dough. Some say there should be six layers. They believe that's the origin of the "ci" in  the name.
In fact, cipaille is a gallicization of the English sea pie--called that either because it once included seafood or because it's eaten by the sea. I don't know. Cipaille is pronounced like sea pie. In the Gaspé it's also called cipâte, referring to the layers of pâte or pastry. The human mind tries to make sense of a word that makes no sense.
For aficionados of Quebecois cuisine who think they recognize the deep-dish tourtières of Lac St-Jean in my description, note that these were originally called cipaille.
A little more about words by the sea...
I brought Linda Besner's amazing new book of poetry, the id kid, to the Gaspé. Her sense of whimsy  blows me away. I'm awed by her dexterity with language, her images, her wild sense of occasion, her grace. She blesses the most mundane of objects--broken chairs, a plastic bag of tomatoes, an eye exam. I sat outside in the sun, facing the sea, reading, feeling wowed by the swing of her words.
Finally I had to go inside to clean the fridge we'd brought with us. We acquired it when R's sister Sue moved into a group home.
But oh. The domestic service R paid to do Sue's cleaning for the past few years seems not to have understood that the refrigerator was included in cleaning. There were many and various stains and dried matter dribbled down the walls and squished between the door hinges. I began to scrub. And grimace. Soak and scratch and pick with a knife. Finally even got a bottle of paint thinner.
I hate cleaning and normally I would have cursed and done it as quickly as possible. But I was still under the spell of Linda's poetry. I tried to find words to describe the different colours and textures I was removing. One puddle looked like the melted yellow fat that gets poured on popcorn in the cinema. Another smudge was green as cucumber skin. I knew that Linda would be able to turn this cleaning-a-fridge experience into a poem. Knowing that made me feel almost better about spending two hours stooped inside a fridge.
p.s. re the photo, those are clouds on the horizon, not coastline.