Sunday, May 25, 2014

bicycle trauma

The end of May, late morning, cloudless sky, fruit trees in bloom, the water in the canal deep blue. From somewhere a skunky whiff that reminded me of my brother pushing a wheelbarrow of sheep manure into the woods, and our mother being glad that he and his friends were doing something healthy and going hiking. Ever since then I've believed that dope grown with manure has a more pungent aroma.

R and I were cycling along the canal, heading toward the path that crossed to the river. He had slowed, and I was too close--really too close. Something was about to happen and I knew it was my fault, which didn't mean that I knew how or the right way to stop it.

As a footnote, let me say that I do not have a driver's license. Once upon a time I did, but I let it lapse for the good of humanity. I was the kind of driver who would have clipped a kid, who ran after a ball into the street, without even feeling the bump or seeing the flash of movement. Hey, at least I recognize that about myself. More people, who are currently in control of an engine-powered box of metal and glass, could stand to ask themselves whether they should be driving.
Some years ago I was informed that I'm no longer allowed to have a license. I had a small stroke that left me one-quarter blank in my field of vision. Imagine your face in a mirror. Divide the mirror into four equal parts. The top right square is blank. It's not blurred; it's not grey. It's just not there. You look into a mirror and don't see one eye and half your forehead and hair. Look out at the world and you don't know what you're not seeing. The deficiency is called quadrantanopia.

But I can't blame what happened on the bike this morning on my compromised eyesight. I was too close to R's bike and about to nick his back tire.
In hindsight, I realize it wouldn't have mattered to R. He's a seasoned cyclist. A few years ago he cycled from Montreal to Toronto. From May to October he cycles to where he works at the top of the mountain. It's a climb. We live at the lower end of the city. To get to where he works is a climb of over 200 m or 700 ft.
In Montreal we call this the mountain, though it isn't really one. My Austrian genes insist I make the point. After all, my father and his father were born in this house. Those are mountains--and even those aren't the high Alps.

But I live in Montreal now, and up on the mountain is where R works--in the cemetery. Have you ever noticed how societies before our heathen times gave the best real estate to the dead?
R's place of employment is the largest cemetery in Canada and the third largest in North America. You can get lost among the statuary, columbaria, gigantic trees, In Memoriams, gravestones, charnel houses, mausoleums, plinths... R's job has introduced me to a whole new branch of vocabulary.

And stories. Fights over estates, biker burials, family indifference, family tears, balding brothers still jostling for daddy's (dead) attention.
When we were cycling today, he told me about a man who came to the cemetery office because his girlfriend of decades had just been interred in her father's plot, and her father had informed the boyfriend he would not be buried there. The boyfriend might live another 50 yrs. He might meet a new girlfriend. Any number of eventualities might play themselves out.
However, at that moment, he wept with a full grieving heart at the prospect of his ashes not being allowed to rest with his girlfriend's in her father's plot.

But R hadn't told me that cemetery story yet. We were cycling and I saw I was just about to knock my tire against his, which is very bad manners when cycling. I should have braked, but I'm not yet used to my new bike which actually has working brakes.
On my last bike the brake pads kept sticking to the tires. When that happened, I had to bend forward, while cycling, to try to nudge them apart. Since I couldn't manage that with the back wheel, I never used my back brakes. That's probably dangerous, but danger only happens now and then compared to cycling with brake pads sticking all the time. One weighs the irritations and acts accordingly. Or at least I do.
And sure, yeah, I took my bike to be fixed. I spent $100 once and $50 another time. The brake pads still stuck. The bike was a lemon.

Perhaps I should add that I don't as a rule cycle in the street. I'm lucky to live very close to the bike path. I am more of a danger to myself than others.

From my old bike, dysfunctional as it was, I learned not to trust my brakes. Instead, I would coast, drag my feet, sort of hop to a stop. It looked klutzy but it worked.

Now I have a new bike with brakes that work, but my initial reactions haven't adapted yet. So instead of braking when my tire was about to bang into R's, I threw myself to the ground on my almost stopped but still-moving bike.

It could have been messy, but fortunately wasn't. I wasn't cycling fast, my hands and arms hit grass and I hardly scraped myself at all.
I was able to cycle home with only two bruises, one scraped knee, hardly wincing at all.

Do you see the blue velvet cover that discourages the vandal squirrels that inhabit our backyard from chewing my bicycle seat? It's an urn bag.

Monday, May 19, 2014

cycling across the St. Lawrence River

We live on the southwest edge of the island of Montreal.
Usually we cycle on our side of the St. Lawrence River, but today we crossed the ice bridge, which is called l'Estacade if you're looking for it on a map.

In itself, l'Estacade is a no-nonsense bridge, not much to look at, just over 2 k (1 1/4 miles) long. Its purpose is to break up and slow down the tremendous weight of ice in the winter before it crashes into the larger Champlain Bridge. For the rest of the year, during rush hour, city buses ferry people between the south shore and the city of Montreal. During off-hours and on weekends, the ice bridge is a wide, open path for... cycling!  

What's great about l'Estacade is being high over the river, feeling the breeze, seeing the view. Here I'm facing west with the city behind me.

Last summer we were cycling across, trying to get back to the city before a thunderstorm hit. (Yeah, that was dumb). The sky thick with black clouds, rain so hard I couldn't see through my glasses, and I kept trying to cycle because I thought having tires between myself and the asphalt was safer than trusting that lightning wouldn't strike the bridge. The gusts of wind were stronger than I was. Booms of thunder. I couldn't believe a person would survive two heart surgeries and an upper GI bleed, only to get blown off a bridge or fried by lightning. Since then, I check the weather before we leave home.

Here's the Champlain Bridge which the ice bridge is supposed to protect.

Once on the south shore, you're under the Champlain Bridge--and here's the bike path. Going in this direction will eventually get you back to Montreal.

We head south on the narrow strip of land between the St. Lawrence River and the St. Lawrence Seaway. As recently as a few years ago, I would tell myself this was as great as cycling in Europe. Then I wondered why I thought that way. Who needs that kind of self-deprecation? It's not as great as cycling in Europe. It's as great as cycling right here where I live, at home.

The water on the right is the river with Montreal on the other side. On the left is the seaway, which was built in 1954-59 to provide deep-water access for the ever-larger ships that are needed to... I don't know. Bring pineapples to Canadian tables.
Here's a behemoth that happened to be passing.

If you wondered how far we cycled, here's the Champlain Bridge (see above) in the distance.

On the way home again, you see the Champlain Bridge with the city in the distance. I've circled the Farine Five Roses sign because that, to me, is where I aim when I want to get home.

The Five Roses sign is a story I'll tell another time.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

rapunzel on the blog tour / canal de soulanges

I was invited to join the Blog Tour by Anita Lahey, author of the thoughtful and thought-provoking blog, Henrietta & me. You can read her entry here:
In the print and paper world Anita has published two books of poetry, Spinning Side Kick and Out to Dry in Cape Breton, as well as a book of essays on poetry and culture, The Mystery Shopping Cart.

The Blog Tour is about writing, though I also added photos from my first long trip cycling this year—which also happened to be the first truly gorgeous summer day of the year. We cycled by the Canal de Soulanges, an abandoned shipping canal southwest of Montreal.

I get good ideas while cycling, though I’ve yet to learn the trick of bringing pen and paper along to stop and jot them down. Then I have to memorize lines of dialogue or bits of character description, repeating them over and over to myself until I get home.

What am I working on?
A collection of short fiction. The stories are written. Some are as finished as I can finish them. Others are still in the untrimmed, groping stage. Work progresses slowly. I sometimes think writing a book of short fiction is harder than writing a novel. True, a novel is longer. It’s a huge feat to sustain a compelling narrative from beginning through the unwieldy length of the middle to a satisfying conclusion. Too many novels go boggy in the middle or peter out to a lackluster or contrived ending. I would still argue that, arduous as the task of writing a novel is, the novel is still a world unto itself. With each story in a collection, I create a world particular to that story. If I have ten stories in a collection, that means ten separate worlds, each of which should breathe and feel alive. Which brings me to the next question.

How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
Well, it’s me writing and nobody else has quite my point of view and voice. Beyond that, I don’t know that I can define distinctive qualities of my work—or that I want to.

In terms of intent, my short fiction differs from collections where the stories are grouped thematically or are linked, because mine aren’t. I want each story to be different from the others. I believe the defining feature of a short story is that it’s short. In those six to twenty pages—whatever the length of the story—one creates the specific circumstances of these characters and their concerns. For me, the discipline of writing short fiction is to develop those characters and concerns within those pages. If you read a book of short fiction by Alice Zorn, each story will be set in a different place, introduce new characters, have its own thematic, emotional or moral conflict.

Why do I write what I do?
It’s what I want to write.

How does my writing process work?

I couldn’t resist adding that visual, though it’s hammer-over-the-head obvious. The dead wood, the deep colours, the winter-dry swamp grass and brush. My camera isn’t quick enough to catch the dozens of Tree Swallows that were flitting across the pond with wild scoops through the air. I kept expecting them to collide, but they didn't. The scene is rotted, yet beautiful and so... potential.

But okay, the question is about process.
I don't write from an outline, though I sometimes have sketchy notes about things I want to have happen or images I want to use. Often I have a sense of the end I want to work toward, though I don't know if it will take me ten or thirty pages to get there.
I can write directly on the keyboard, but I prefer to do first drafts longhand. When I’m typing, I keep backing up and revising. I feel I have a more tangible sense of narrative flow when I’m writing with a pen, but that might just be something I tell myself.
I don’t often get an idea for a new short story, but when I do, I write the first draft as quickly as possible. Then I type it into the computer (a loathsome task).
I revise on the computer or printed pages. I revise endlessly—endlessly as in “no number”.
I don't know that I ever finish a piece from the first to the last word to my utter satisfaction, but I've learned how to move on to something else.


Next up on the Blog Tour will be the delightful Julie Paul who writes on a myriad of writerly topics at  Julie has published one book of short fiction, The Jealousy Bone, and has another coming out this fall, The Pull of the Moon.
Carin Makuz, who keeps one of my all-time favourite blogs at, will start another branch of the tour. Carin has published short fiction in Geist and Room, and had a story place second in This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt.