Tuesday, December 21, 2021

that time of year cookies

Recreating taste memories. Does it ever say in Proust who baked the excellent madeleines that sent him into 3000 pages of memory? 

R often refers to the Austrian cookies that my mother baked at Christmas. He has no way of knowing what the original cookies that I remember from my childhood tasted like. She used to make Haselnußsterne, Rumkeks, Vanillekipferl, Lebkuchen, Krapferl...

In later years, she made only one or two kinds per Christmas. With the years, too, she adapted the recipes to accommodate her tastes and an intolerance to wheat flour. 

I rarely eat sweets. I don't need to make cookies for myself. But R has delirious memories of the time he feasted on a platter of what he calls sandwich cookies. As he remembers them, there were two cookies with a jam filling and iced with chocolate. Every year, when the holiday approaches and I ask if he would like me to make Austrian Christmas cookies, he rhapsodizes about those sandwich cookies. 

I assumed he meant Krapferl--two cookies with an apricot jam middle and iced with chocolate--but no, he says sadly, that's not them. 

I leaf through the disintegrating pages of the Viennese cookbook that my great grandmother gave to my grandmother who gave it to my mother when she emigrated to Canada. There is no recipe for 'sandwich cookie'.

Among the recipes, I see that my mother made an X next to a recipe called Haselnußkücherl--little hazelnut cakes. They have a top and a bottom with a filling of ground hazelnuts and rum. When I was a child, she iced them with rum glaze.  

By the time R was coming to my parents' house for the holidays, she filled them with red currant jam and iced them with chocolate. 

So these might be what he's calling sandwich cookies, but that doesn't help me much since by R's time, she was substituting ground oats, ground almonds and ground hazelnuts for wheat flour. But in what proportion? 

I made a few guesses and baked the cookies. Good, R says, but they should be puffier. 

I've told him Austrian cookies aren't puffy. I remember, though, that my mother often added baking powder to recipes that didn't call for any. 

It's possible that R will never get the cookie he wants since he's fixated on a memory of a variation that cannot be repeated. I should also add that the challenge is entirely in my own head. It doesn't matter to him whether I make the cookies or not. But if I make them, he will offer an opinion. That is our dynamic. 

I made another small batch with baking powder--and although they still aren't exactly as he remembers them, he finds them pretty good. He must. There are only three left, even though I haven't iced them yet. They taste like ground oatmeal and ground hazelnut shortbread. Homemade raspberry jam filling.

I might now make another batch and ice them.

I wish you all happy holidays, however you celebrate the time off. Be careful. Stay safe. Today is the shortest day of the year. As of tomorrow, there will be more light. 

ps I did not make all the cookies above this year, but I've made them other years. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

solidified narrative / one way to recycle paper

What does a writer do with all those draft pages? That assumes you write on paper as I do. 

I can but don't like writing first draft on the computer, because I can't stop rereading what I've written, second-guessing myself. I move forward more efficiently when I write first draft longhand. And although I can write with ballpoint or rollerball or pencil on newsprint, I have my precious routines about using a particular format of hard-cover notebook and my Lamy fountain pen, even though the Lamy leaks unless I use a certain ink (not Lamy). 

For a writer, what's important aren't the tools but the words--except that I'm also a human animal who likes her creature comforts. I like the smoothness of ink and nib when I'm writing on good paper. I like the bound notebooks because I only write on one of the facing pages and keep the other free for notes and arrows.  

After a couple of hours, I dictate what I've written into the computer. From then on, I print pages of hard copy that I revise--again, by hand. I revise a lot. When I hear people boast that they've done five revisions, I have no idea what they mean. That would be me getting started. I use a lot of paper, but too many hours of looking at a computer screen give me migraines, and too many hours of typing aggravate my hands. Paper is a luxury I allow myself. When it's filled with sentences and scribbles, I dutifully drop it in the recycling bin.

And now R has begun making paper. A friend gave me a few sheets of paper she'd made and he was so pleased with the effect when he painted on it--how the paper took the paint, how the paint bled, how vividly the colours dried--that he decided to make some himself. He set up a table in the far corner of the cellar behind the water heater.

He needed a secondhand blender, a screen and a shallow tub. The blender took a while to find because they seem to get snapped up immediately in Montreal. For a few weeks we stopped at Renaissance, l'Armée de bon salut, the Good Shepherd, etc. He finally found a blender in a thrift shop on our recent visit to family in Ontario. He made the frame and screen he needed from a window screen I spotted in sidewalk garbage. Ditto the tub. He's set himself up in a far corner of the cellar. 

This is one of the first pieces he made.

I have a dim memory of watching an artist years ago, cooking torn rags in a cauldron. Now it seems one speeds up the process of making pulp by buzzing it in a blender--and that the easiest way to get pulp is by using old paper. 

Except R doesn't want to use old envelopes. He's asked for paper from my recycling bin. He wants story ideas. He says he's making "solidified narrative". 

He's been adding different bits to the pulp for texture and colour. This one has parsley. It's the paper he used for the Pink Flamingos up top. 

Why Pink Flamingos? No idea. That's his story. I had my chance when I wrote words on the paper.

 Here he's adding dried Xmas cactus flowers...

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

place names / my version

Of the many places where I have set fiction, I am delighted to have my short story, "Our Ladies", which takes place in the Gaspé, published in the current issue of Prairie Firehttps://www.prairiefire.ca/current-issue

Ladies is a word that has fallen out of fashion--with good reason--but the title is a nod to the many places in Quebec called Notre Dame de [whatever]. Our Lady of… It is not a nod to the religion that named them, except in an ironic sense as I believe is made clear. 

The story is set in a village called Notre Dame des Quatres Douleurs. Our Lady of Four Sorrows. A fictional name for a string of houses in a landscape of hills and sea that I assure you exists. Place--physical, social, cultural--plays an intregal role in my writing. What is a character without place? Even if it's a place as small as a room or a country where the character does not feel she belongs. I am interested in the relationship--whether rootedness or tension--between character and place. It's fitting that this story appears in an issue exploring Roots & Routes.

When writing, I have sometimes used real place names, sometimes invented names. I don't have a rule about this. Even when I use a real place name, it's likely that I've manipulated the layout of the streets. Zadie Smith has a note in the Acknowledgements of her novel, Swing Time: "North London, in these pages, is a state of mind. Some streets may not appear as they do in Google Maps." Other writers of fiction have similar notes on the copyright page. For a writer, this makes sense. You use what you need for the narrative. A novel is not a photographic picture. 

However, I have discovered that some readers struggle with this. It has nothing to do with intelligence or level of education. A friend told me once that her father, who was a college professor, had grown up in Newark, New Jersey where Philip Roth had also grown up and set his fiction. Her father was angry that Roth had made up details about Newark. He didn't "get it right". In vain she tried to explain to him that Roth was writing fiction.

While I was writing the novel Five Roses, I debated using the name of the Montreal neighbourhood where I imagined it taking place. There are so many objectifiably recognizable markers. The Lachine canal with its history, the FIVE ROSES sign that marks Montreal's southern horizon, cycling by the St. Lawrence River, the dépanneur on my street corner, so many scenes that I documented, photographed, and used as source material. That was where my characters, albeit fictional, lived--in the Pointe aka the Point aka Pointe St-Charles aka Point St. Charles. 

When I began working on the novel, I had lived in the Pointe for 10 years. Long enough, I felt, to be able to describe it. Certainly as a newcomer. I never pretended to be someone with great-grandparents who dug the Lachine Canal.

Six years later Five Roses was published. I met with a generous response from readers who found that my portrayal of the Pointe was just and who appreciated the novel.

But there were also those who objected. They challenged my right to set a novel here. One belligerently asked why I hadn't told the "good, old stories"? The hardscrabble toughness of life when the factories closed and neighbours helped each other, the horse-drawn delivery carts, the family of the West End Gang driving up and down the streets at Christmas with a flatbed truck handing out gifts for children. Hadn't I heard those stories?

Indeed I had. But they weren't my stories.

Another neighbour--another sidewalk confrontation--said I wasn't allowed to make up stories about where she lived. 

But I live here too now. 

Writing fiction in the realist tradition is a balance between consensual reality (assuming a common ground can be found), the emotional/ethical truth of the story, the imaginative process. I don't write about a place unless I feel I know it well enough to adopt the point of view I've chosen. And as a writer, yes, I claim that right. 

The Gaspé is a landscape I've been visiting for almost 40 years. The protagonist of this story, "Our Ladies", is seeing it for the first time. It was delight to experience it with him.

We were last in the Gaspé in late September and early October. Moose-hunting season had just started so we weren't able to walk in the woods. We stayed by the shore. Mountain ash trees were heavy with berries. We saw a flock of snow geese, who don't normally fly so far east when they're migrating, wheel from the sky to land in the river. The sight and sound was so magnificent that I didn't even think of pulling out my camera until they had almost all landed. 

Even when I return to Montreal, part of my heart stays behind with the waves and the hills. 

Monday, October 25, 2021

life of a sidewalk tree

Our front door abuts the sidewalk. Anything that happens on the sidewalk I hear through the windows. People walking past, talking, laughing, arguing and scolding, walking dogs, bouncing a basketball, rolling a grocery buggy or a washing machine strapped onto a dolly. They pass so closely that I could reach out and touch their heads. They can see into my windows as well, although generally they don't look because that's the unspoken understanding (cf Jane Jacobs on the "intricate ballet" of sidewalk behaviour), which I have to admit I don't necessarily respect myself. The sidewalk is the border between private and public. Cats, squirrels, and raccoons use it too. 

Given that it's a length of concrete, it's fabulous to have a few trees shading it. When we moved here 20 years ago, there was a beech tree in front of the house. It gave me a screen of leaves throughout spring and summer, and in the autumn the leaves turned brilliant yellow. Even the bare branches in the winter were preferable to seeing directly into the neighbours' windows across the street. (Sure, I could put up curtains but then I might as well have a wall.) 

Sparrows liked taking the morning sun in the tree, even though I didn't always like how loudly they CHIRPED about their prowess or the sun or food source or any of the many topics of sparrow communication. My office is on the second floor, so I was as close to the sparrows in the crown of the tree as I would be to passersby on the sidewalk below. When the sparrows got too loud and monotonous, I CHIRPED back at them until they moved along. Starlings visited the tree too, though they preferred the larger century-old cottonwoods in the back alley. Starlings congregate in larger groups.

The birds were loudest in the spring and summer. The part of the avian brain that controls song shrinks at end of breeding season. Their testes too--for a sparrow from the size of a baked bean to a pinhead. No, I don't know what kind of baked bean, nor what size of pin, but you get the idea. My source for this is the excellent book by Tim Birkhead, Bird Sense.

In winter the sparrows still came to perch in the tree with their feathers fluffed out to keep warm.  

Then a kamikaze cowboy crashed a sidewalk snow plough into the tree, damaging the trunk so badly that the city had to cut it down.  

The following summer the city planted a mountain ash, and for the first few years, the tree was healthy. It bloomed white in the spring, followed by clusters of orange berries. The starlings and squirrels had a heyday. 

Then the tree became infested with tent caterpillars which we tried to control by cutting away the affected branches. The following year we saw dieback--dried brown leaves and leafless branches. I called the city to tell them the tree wasn't well. They sent an arborist whose report said there was no significant dieback. I would have liked to invite the arborist into my office for a clear view of the significantly dead crown of the tree. 

After two years of increasing dieback, the city cut the tree down. I came home one day to a stub of trunk. A few weeks later a machine must have been sent to grind the trunk and part of the root. I came home to mound of sawdust. 

For the rest of the summer we had no tree. The neighbours across the street had no trees either, because theirs had been cut down as well.  

A couple of weeks ago trees were left on the sidewalk with No Parking/Horticulture signs along the street. It looked promising! 

The next day the trees had disappeared. Were they stolen in the night? Had the city reconsidered planting trees? Did whoever delivered the trees put them on the wrong street? In Montreal there are always many possibilities. The workings of the city and its employees are not transparent.  

Last week I came home to a new tree on the sidewalk. The tag on it said it was a Malus Dreamweaver which sounds to me like a word for Nightmare. Malus means bad. However, I looked it up and discovered that Malus also means apple. As in Eve and the apple? 

A Malus Dreamweaver is a flowering crab apple that is described as columnar with nearly vertical branches. I would have thought the city might want to shade the sidewalk, though perhaps a narrow tree makes more sense with power/telephone/cable lines overhead. 

The new tree, the Apple Dreamweaver, is still a small tree. The sparrows aren't interested in it yet. I hope it flourishes as well as it can in a city where the drivers of sidewalk snow ploughs crash into trees. I will pick up the litter around it and water it and plant a few flowers next spring. 

I look forward to it growing to within view of my desk.     

Thank you to Joanne Carnegie for pointing out errors in an earlier version of this post. 

Monday, October 18, 2021

lessons in discordance / when i lived in toronto 1980s

A friend was telling me how necessary it was for her to listen to music just now. I was reminded of a time when music felt like it was my lifeline. 

I was living in Toronto in the 80s. I'd left the boyfriend I'd been living with for two years. I sat in grad student seminars but nothing anyone said made sense. Why was I there? Why get a PhD? My life felt upside-down and I wasn't sure how to go on. 

When I told my thesis supervisor that I was leaving the program, I mentioned that I didn't have anywhere to live. He offered to let me flat-sit while he went away for a couple of months. There's some subtext here about sexual advances. You might think that should be the headline, but in those years it wasn't. I later discovered the professor had a harem of grad students. I was too dense to understand his overtures. I assumed he needed someone to water his plants and forward his mail, which I could do.

For a summer I lived in his large apartment with corner windows that looked onto trees. I drank black coffee and ate green apples. I got a job in a restaurant on Queen St making desserts, but I only did it for a few hours a week. Enough to buy coffee and apples. In the middle of the night my ex-boyfriend would call to tell me he was masturbating. I think I hung up. I hope I hung up.  

I didn't know how to get my life back on track again. Was it ever on track? Up until then, I'd stayed in school beause it was easiest.  

I spent long hours reading the books on the professor's shelves. Reading was good but it wasn't helping. I longed for music. There was no stereo in the apartment and I didn't have the money to buy one. I had remembered to take my vinyl records and cassette tapes when I left the ex-boyfriend, because when I'd left a previous ex, who'd said I could return for my belongings, he changed his mind and wouldn't let me in the door. I later saw the things he wouldn't let me have at a friend's place. When I pointed out that a recipe book on her kitchen counter was mine, she said, Oh, we're having sex, I hope you don't mind. I didn't mind about the sex. I did mind about my recipe books and cake tins.    

I'm older now. I don't know how much I've changed. I don't know that people change essentially, but I believe we can aquire new habits and ways of thinking. An example: I no longer listen to the music that I yearned so deeply to hear in those years. What would it be called? Experimental jazz? Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Palle Danielsson. When I hear it now, it jangles my nerves.  

But that discordance was exactly what I craved when other people were listening to Prince and Linda Ronstadt and AC/DC.  

So how did this happen? My father, who never drove to Toronto, showed up at the professor's apartment with a brand-new stereo and turntable. Gifts for no reason was not something that happened in my family. I don't know how he knew. I never talked to him on the phone. It's possible I told my mother that I had no way of listening to music. Or maybe my sister told him. She was more attuned to the possibility that I was depressed than I was.  

For the rest of the summer, between books and making desserts on Queen St, I lay on the sofa, looking out the windows at the trees, listening very hard to how Garbarek sound-wove the shrieks and meandering of his tenor sax into a whole of sorts. It helped me feel I could take the discordance in my own head and move forward. 

The photo from above was taken some years later. There are none of me from that earlier time.  

Monday, October 11, 2021

autumn walking / environmental art

 What do you think this is?

1) environmental paper art

2) a mess of leaves stuck together

3) a destroyed wasps' nest

4) a disintegrating Italian Renaissance coif that got snagged in a Montreal tree? 


4) Seems unlikely given the 500 years since the Italian Renaissance and that this was a young tree in Montreal, but you can see the similarity, yes?

2) A mess of leaves would be a bad choice, since there is clearly design and structure here, even if it's been destroyed.

The answer is 1) and 3). 

3) A destroyed wasps' nest, because that's what it is. 

1) I would argue that it's art too, because it shows me the world in a new way. I marvel at how the wasps collected leaves and chewed them to make paper that they then shaped to make a nest. I can appreciate this, even though I don't want to be stung by wasps. 

The nest was destroyed, and then time and weather worked their effect. The texture is like paper with too little cellulose to bind it. It crumbles when I touch it, yet it was a serviceable home for 20-30 adult wasps. Of course, home-building was their intention. But I behold it as art. My response is aesthetic. I love the delicate texture.

Though I have to admit that my mind still leaps to seeing it as an Italian Renaissance coif.  


Monday, August 23, 2021

walks by the sea / getting a fridge repaired / la gaspésie august 2021

When we were at house in the Gaspé in April, the refrigerator stopped working. We bought it new seven years ago. It has seen only eight months' use, since we live most of the time in Montreal. R called the owner of the store, Meubles Vallée in Cap Chat, but he didn't want to hear about it. Nothing but trouble with those refrigerators. He stopped selling them. The people who bought them? Too bad. 

We called the 1-800 number that was on the fridge and were told that a work order could be requested, but in our sector the repair person travelled around the coast only once a month. We couldn't be there for the upcoming date because I had a medical procedure booked in Montreal. Fridge? Heart? There are priorities.

The situation wasn't dire since the temperature was cool enough outside that we could keep the cooler with perishables in the shed. And then, voilà! The fridge started working again.

Nevertheless, on our next trip R brought tools to undo a panel as advised by the woman at 1-800 and vacuumed the fridge innards. He took off the front grill and vacuumed there too. Everything seemed fine. In any case, the fridge was working.

When we returned in August, the fridge stopped again. R vacuumed the innards but nothing happened. We kept pressing the button for temperature control. There is no reset button. We unplugged, waited, and plugged it in again. Repeat. Repeat. 

Are you wondering what make of refrigerator this is so you don't buy one? AMANA. 

R called 1-800 again and was told there were no available appointments with the Once-a-Month repair person until October--except for Sunday of the Labour Day weekend! Did we believe that someone who only does a repair trip around the coast once a month was going to come on the Sunday of a long weekend? No.  

We had put our perishables in the cooler with freezer packs and were okay for a day. We wanted to buy ice, but with so many vacationers having picnics on the beaches in the Gaspé, the ice freezers were empty. R was finally able to get ice by driving to a store in a village that didn't have a beach.

We asked the neighbours if they would put our freezer packs in their freezer. R asked another neighbour if he knew someone local who repaired fridges. He gave R a name but didn't have a phone number. He said to drive two villages over and take not the street at the first river but the street at the second river. He didn't know the house number and there was no sign, but we should look for the truck. We found the right street and drove along it for a couple of kilometres. We saw no truck. 

R stopped to ask a man unpacking groceries if he knew where Mr Repairperson lived. He said to go past the bend and look for a white house. Do you know how many white houses there are on the coast? Luckily an extra clue: the house we were looking for had a new garage, also white. Past the bend were two white houses with a new white garage between them. R rang doorbells. No answer.

Back to the village where we stopped at the small administrative building. R asked if they could confirm an address and maybe give him a phone number. They could, except that the name we'd been given was for the Electrician! Refrigeration was another name. But yes, at that address. White house with a white garage. R called the number and got an answering machine. He left a message. 

From the angle, you can see that I was waiting for frîtes maison, though I was equally tempted by the crème molle window

Later that afternoon, R was napping on the beach when he heard voices in the trees behind him. The neighbour who had our freezer packs was doing something among the trees. When he stepped onto the beach and saw R, he asked if our fridge was still broken. Yes. The man who was with him said that he knew how to repair refrigerators and would be happy to come the next morning.

When R returned to the house, the fridge was working again. Then his phone rang. It was Mr Once-a-Month who said he could come in two days. R said the fridge was now working. Mr Once-a-Month said that from the sounds of it, the computer was defective and needed to be replaced. (The computer? What happened to motors that simply worked or didn't and could be fixed.) A fridge computer cost approx $300. We would also have to pay for the visit as well as his time. He said he would call again the next evening to see if the fridge was still working. He didn't seem to think it would be.  

Where was I during all this? Clambering on the rocks and staring into tidal pools. 

When I returned, R told me about the developments. I was dubious that the fridge would keep working and waited a couple of hours before unpacking the perishables (the damn perishables) from the cooler. The problem with bags of ice is that they leak water. The cardboard carton of eggs was sodden. To get ready for the next possible breakdown we recouped the freezer packs, now frozen solid, from the neighbour. 

The next day at 8:15 a.m. the man from the beach who knew how to repair refrigerators arrived with a plastic bag of tools, but since the fridge was working, he didn't look at it. We chatted for a while. He told us that the fellow who had bought the old church was going to turn it into a microbrasserie. He kept eyeing the top of the fridge. He was very tall and I began to wonder if he was appalled by the dust. I'm short and I forget about high-up surfaces. Finally he said that he was trying to figure out whether the fridge was level. R got his tool with the bubble and checked. The front was a millimetre higher than the back. That wouldn't be the cause for the breakdowns but he adjusted it. 

Later in the afternoon, when we were out walking, Mr Once-a-Month called. R verified that even though the fridge was still under warranty, we would have to pay for the visit plus time plus parts. Since the fridge was working, we decided to forgo the appointment. If we needed him at some point in the future, we would call and hope it coincided with one of his monthly visits. Or that the weather would be cool enough that we could keep perishables outdoors. Old-style refrigeration.

dog-chewed veneer dresser revived with blue paint

We got home and the fridge was no longer working correctly. The motor was running, but there was no refrigeration and the temperature buttons didn't respond. We called Mr Once-a-Month, but someone else answered the phone, the work order had been cancelled, and our fridge problem was back at the bottom of the list. By then, the fridge stopped working completely. I packed the few remaining perishables in the cooler with the freezer packs that we'd recouped from the neighbour. Fortunately we were returning to Montreal the next morning.

That night, in the middle of the night, the refrigerator began working again, but for how long? 

We never did hear from the refrigerator repair person who lives two villages over, not at the first river but the second. We will go look for his truck when we return. Our new tall friend, like us, doesn't live in the Gaspé year-round and probably won't be there to help when we next go.   

I don't know that I believe that Mr. Once-a-Month truly exists. 

ps (one month later) He does exist. We now have a date for when he will come. 

life lesson about tides: at high tide there's half a metre of water around this rock

this, our last evening on the coast (for now); we love the less dramatic sunsets too

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

cycling from Montreal to the Gaspésie

Several people asked me whether R would write about his cycling trip. He's done one better (IMO) by doing some sketches. I include a couple of my favourite here, as well as the link to his blog where you can find an account of his travels, the places he saw and people he met en route--with more sketches! Not bad for a Dollarama sketchpad, a pen and his finger. He was travelling light.


I direct you to his blog for more. https://pointesaintcharles.blogspot.com/2021/07/cycling-from-montreal-to-gaspe-riviere.html