Friday, December 30, 2011

what the body remembers

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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!