Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I'm home again. Montreal. It snowed last night and there wasn't a wind, so the branches on the tree outside my window have little puffs of snow on the tips. At a glance, I could believe those tufts are the buds of leaves--an urban version of pussy willows. But it's snow. Still winter, still cold. Snow in the crooks of the trees, along the cornices of the houses across the street. Snow on the electricity and video wires that keep the houses hooked up to world.

I'd had an idea--mistaken--that if we went to Winnipeg, winter in Montreal would feel balmy in comparison. 

Winter in Winnipeg felt like a whole other creature. We were only there for six days. It was so cold that the children weren't allowed outdoors for school recess. Sidewalks weren't scraped of snow. Rather, a flattened path was scraped across the packed snow. Usually, when I walk outside in the winter and the snow squeaks, I know it's really-really cold. In Winnipeg I think snow starts out squeaky and goes up in register. Fortunately the prairie sun is so strong that it heats the bus shelters. Or the bus shelters are so cold that February sunlight feels like a source of heat. 

When I was a grad student (decades ago), I wanted to write a thesis about the work of a 19th-century French critic and historian, Hippolyte Taine. Taine argued that the temperament of a people is formed by the climate in which they live. He made generalizations about flat, peaceful landscapes and Flemish painters, southern Italians and sensual paintings. The logic sounds simplistic. It is simplistic--and yet, when landscape and climate are so dramatic, wouldn't it somehow temper one's view of the world?    

While I've been writing, a strong wind has started blowing, shaking the branches of the tree, sweeping snow off the rooftops, swirling a whiteout. It is still winter.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

knitting on your fingers

This six-year-old boy showed me how to knit on his fingers. His mom sewed the resulting rope into a hat. He also made the pompom on the hat. When I asked him to show me how he did that, he said I could look it up for myself on YouTube.
I like how his three-year-old brother told me that one day, when I'm bigger, I'll be able to knit too.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

cheap haircuts

How cheap is cheap and what do you get for it?

Twenty years ago I paid over $100 for a cut at a stylish salon because I was going on a trip and wanted to impress the people I'd be visiting. A day before the trip I lost a contact lens and had to wear my not so stylish glasses, so the cost of the cut felt wasted. Nor could I ever rid myself of the suspicion that most of the time the hairdresser was snipping around my head, he was only making scissor sounds, not making contact with hair.

I moved to a salon with more reasonable prices--$25?--operated by a Greek woman. I knew she was Greek because she talked about being Greek. At first she lived with her husband and his family, and complained a lot about various domestic injustices. There never seemed to be solution since the problems were always the same. Then she left her husband, who had been her first and only man ever, and decided to make up for lost time by experimenting. She had an appetite for talking about details. Unfortunately--from my end, captive in my chair with a sheet wrapped around me, a winter's wind blowing outside and my hair wet--the stories were too much the same. She needed either to broaden her range of experiences or her vocabulary. She had a thing for men who liked Latino rhythm. "If you know what I mean." She said that a lot. If one gets a haircut every six weeks, that's an average of 8 such conversations a year, and over the years that I lived in that neighbourhood...

When I moved, I looked for a new hairdresser. Time had passed and a cheap cut now cost $30-$35. The new hairdresser talked about her boyfriend and her dog. She showed me pictures of her dog. Never of her boyfriend. Over the years that I went to her, she had one live-in boyfriend with whom she broke up, some dates, then a new boyfriend. The dog was always the same--a fluffy little white dog. Sometimes she gave me a good cut. Sometimes the cuts weren't as successful. She was trying out some new variety of a bob when I was expecting the old version. (It seems to me that new versions of a hairstyle should have a new name?) Or she forgot I have an aggressive cowlick so I got to live for a month as Dennis the Menace with a bob.

See the back of his head? That's what I mean. It could have looked funky but that would have required the application of "product". I want a simple cut I can shampoo, rinse and dry. No irons, no styling, no aerosol nor gel.

After a several wrong haircuts, I decided to stop getting my hair cut, which happened around the same time that I stopped working at a paying job. I tied my hair back or pinned it up. Eventually I knew I would have to see to split ends, but I wasn't in a rush.

I had my eye on a salon close to where I now live. It wasn't expensive as I could see from the sign beside the door. On the other hand, I wondered what I could expect from a $10 haircut. From the sign I gathered this would be no frills job. Whenever I walked by the salon, I saw that the clients had black hair.

I finally went in to ask if I could have a couple of inches trimmed. The woman who swept the floor barked at me to take off my shoes and put on slippers. She then ordered me to look through some magazines to find a hairstyle. I repeated that I only wanted a couple of inches trimmed. The stylist stepped out from behind a curtain. I watched her heavily made-up eyes appraise my lack of makeup. She had long French polished nails and hennaed hands. She motioned me to sit, pinched up the ends of my hair and scowled. Well... after almost a year the ends were definitely split. Again I said I only needed a couple of inches trimmed.

She squirted water from a spray bottle and began pinning up my hair. A shampoo clearly wasn't included in the $10, but that was fine by me since I never like the shampoo used in hair salons. She shoved at my head with the tips of her fingers to get me to hold it a certain way. She and the other women kept up an animated dialogue. I finally asked what they were speaking. Bengali. Except for showing me how much she meant to cut off, I don't recall that she addressed me directly. At the end, when I paid as per the sign by the door, including a tip, she pushed back the extra. I said it was a tip. She pushed it again and said, "No tip." I left the salon with one of the better cuts I've had in a long time, though I have no idea what it's called. A middle-aged, frame-the-face cut?

Two months later I went again. The stylist was alone, watching TV. She jutted her lips and said she remembered me. I wasn't sure if that was good or bad. When I'd walked in, she changed whatever she was watching to the weather station. Because white people worry about weather? I knew to take off my boots and put on slippers. I listened to the weather in Acapulco as she spritzed my head. The phone rang. She held it crooked between her shoulder and ear and kept talking while she snipped. I wondered if that would affect her angle with the scissors, but wasn't sure how much maneuvering room I had since I was only paying $10. At $10 a cut, could I begrudge her having a gab with a friend at the same time? I thought of how I listen to an audio book on my iPod while I'm cooking and it doesn't make me a worse cook. In fact, I take more time because I'm listening to something I like. She finished cutting my hair and into the phone said something in Bengali that ended with "super busy" and hung up. As soon as I paid, she switched the TV to an Indian movie. High drama with evil men and beautiful women in saris and glittering jewellery. She swept up my bits of blond/brown/grey hair and dumped them onto a disorderly nest of black hair in a bin.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

writing longhand

I`m an Alice. Of course, I leave myself notes.
Will I get the message? I can only hope.
Once upon a time, years ago, I vowed to STOP WRITING LONGHAND, because I ended up with a knee-high stack of notebooks. I'd written a novel but what to do with it? I gagged on the prospect of having to type up all that mess. It was enough to make me put the whole stack of notebooks in a rarely used closet and forget I'd ever written it.
I decided then that I would only write directly on the computer. I can, of course. I learned ten finger typing in Grade Nine with Mr. Jones at Saltfleet High School in Stoney Creek, Ontario. Stoney Creek didn't belong to Hamilton yet. And yes, the teacher was called Mr. Jones. He was known for his manic dedication to turn the whole class into 80 words per minute typists. The typewriters were manual, metal beasts the size of small cars now. You could dislocate your shoulder returning the carriage. You could tear a finger if you accidentally jabbed it between the keys that were far apart and mounted on metal contraptions. Typing with ten fingers meant that your little finger was responsible for that important vowel "a". Mr. Jones expected the muscles and punch of your a's to be as hard as your h's. It wasn't easy. There was no auto correct. There was no backing up. A mistake was a mistake (to be deducted from the number of letters you'd typed correctly, thus decreasing your word count per minute). The ribbon occasionally got entangled with the type bars. Or it typed red instead of black.
I don't recall what grade I got in Grade Nine Typing. I can't even recall why I thought I should be taking Typing.

But that's not the case anymore, right? Now, typing has become almost too easy. You type a word, you change the word, you type it again, you change it again.
When I write first draft on the computer, I can go backward and forward changing words until a whole morning's work leaves me further behind than when I started.
The best way for me to move through a first draft is to write longhand. Longhand allows me to indulge in my fussy-messy love of fountain pens. Messy because my pen leaks and I'm a leftie.
I have ballpoints too. I use them when I shouldn't be messy. The ballpoint in the picture above is a Waterman with a brass barrel. Brass because I like weight to my pens. My fountain pen has a brass barrel too.
Another great tactile draw is the lovely paper of my favourite notebooks, which I buy exclusively at on Parc north of Sherbrooke. Can good paper make you want to write? In my case, yes.
Perhaps, too, I like the childish cut 'n paste of real paper and glue which is the only way I can revise when writing longhand. A friend told me last week about a kind of notebook she uses where the pages can be moved around and inserted elsewhere. ??? I have to go to her place and see.

All to say that I'm procrastinating. I'm typing here when I should be typing up those two notebooks. But that may be the legacy of Mr. Jones: a lifelong aversion to typing from pages next to the keyboard.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

food heritage / topfenknödel

Traditional Austrian food comprises any number of meat and potato dishes.

I like the ones that might more properly be thought of as dessert since they're sweet--only these can be served as a main meal. I'm talking dumplings--and today it's cottage cheese dumplings aka Topfenknödel, served with plum compote aka Zwetschgenröstl aka Zwetschgenpfeffer. Zwetschgenröstl is a dialect word I've dredged up from memory. Google can't find a match. I love coming up with words that stump Google. Perhaps I should doubt that I'm remembering it correctly, but I don't. The only time I had these dumplings in Austria was with my aunt Gretl who lived in Vienna. That would be... 25 yrs ago, but I still have the sound bite in my head of a Viennese waiter drawling the word. Google wasn't around then.

I made the plum compote last summer. I don't normally do such housewifely stuff, but I like being able to have a taste of summer in the winter, and I've learned from experience to make a few jars of something that will keep in the freezer, since I can't be bothered with wax and proper canning procedure.

The cottage cheese has to be pressed or dry, which isn't the way cottage cheese is usually marketed here. For the longest time, I used to buy pressed cottage cheese at a kosher grocery store. Funny, eh? Shopping in a Jewish store for ingredients to make an Austrian dish? I've now found two other stores where I can get pressed cottage cheese--but for these dumplings I was even more lucky. A dear friend has a neighbour who makes it.

The dumplings are boiled then rolled in buttered, browned and sweetened bread crumbs, and served with plum compote on the side.

Maybe you need to have an Austrian background to accept that this can be supper. I did make a big salad--greens, roasted eggplant, avocado--to have as a starter.