Tuesday, October 21, 2014

attempting to art

These things I find very satisfying:
1. using up stuff or finding a new use for something
2. getting rid of crap
3. decorating a room
4. translating the image I see in my head, out through my hand and into the real world (this one is problematic and generally less successful)

This past weekend - the most glorious fall weekend I have ever seen in almost two decades living in this city - I was determined to take the entire two days off without even thinking about doing any (paid) work. Given how lazy I am, you would be surprised at how rarely this actually happens. I also was determined to use up some old particle board in the basement - along with a collection of old house paint - to make a large painting to hang in one of the bedrooms at the lake place. 

I was looking to create something woodsy, to reflect what we think is the true nature of the house. I wanted to make something that reminded me of roughly planed wood in some way. 

On Saturday, a drop dead gorgeous day, I pulled on a pair of cutoffs and a ratty old Toronto Maple Leafs tee-shirt that used to belong to the Spousal Unit and hauled the Offspring's long-abandoned Little Tykes easel out of the basement and into the backyard, along with seven or eight cans of leftover house paint and whatever wide brushes I could find that still had some malleable bristles. 

before ... wah wah wahhhh 
The spousal unit had already cut a sizeable piece of particle board for me, which I propped up on the easel and stared at in terror. Be bold, I told myself, be confident. The first few brush strokes were pretty decent - large, aggressive - but something happened as I moved the brush across the board. The broad strokes started to falter, become smaller and less assertive, until they finally petered out into little apologetic flicks of the brush. I tried to tell myself that I had created something vaguely like a winter landscape and that it was fine. But it wasn't. I kept adding paint. It got worse.

I was just going to park the botched painting in the garage and use it to store the lawnmower on, or something, but the next day was another fine fall day that you do not want to pass by. Emboldened and with nothing to lose, I covered the board with a new layer of base paint and started again. I kept my brush strokes as bold as I could, yet kept them restrained so that they ended as assertively as they had begun. I discovered that allowing two colours of paint on the brush at once (a factor of lazy cleaning more than design) gave the illusion of planed wood grain that I had been seeking, or at least a mild proximity.

I added a few touches of contrasting colour here and there and some black lines to give what I hoped would look like depth and I tried to stop before I turned the whole thing into one giant muddy brown mess.

I'm no artist by any stretch of the imagination, and I may never be able to paint or draw what is inside my head, but the final result of this attempt ain't too bad, in my humble opinion. I may not be able to truthfully cross point #4 off my list, but I can give it a tentative check mark for gave it a shot. And for now, that feels like success.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

PDX percept

Bean bag toss games are rampant.

Portlanders are pathologically friendly. Passersby are happy to chat for as long as you want. Everybody thanks the bus driver when they disembark. The bus driver thanks everybody back. On one bus, the driver ended his shift mid-route by coming to the back of the bus to say good-bye to everyone and to thank them.

You CAN pickle that.

Everywhere is food. There seems to be a restaurant on every corner, but we only ever saw one fast food enclave. Food trucks take up permanent residence in food truck trailer parks that dot the city. Charming little places, they are, complete with twinkly lights, picnic tables with Trivial Pursuit games on them and covered eating areas with big screen tvs for when the weather turns inclement. And bean bag toss games, of course. Figs, tomatoes and Swiss chard were ripe and available for our use in the garden of the house we rented. The Plaid Pantry around the corner had really decent $5 wine and the $10 stuff was excellent.

Portland's curb-side recycling program looks really complicated at first glance, but ultimately boils down to put everything in a bin, we'll sort it out. I am still trying to figure out how to buy the gorgeous, roomy and drop-dead charming Craftsman house that we rented, or a suitable equivalent.

Portland has the most liberal freedom of expression laws in the entire country, our guide on the walking tour told us. Right on cue, a girl passing by raised her fist in the air and triumphantly yelled FUCK YEAH!

Gorgonzola fries. Powell's Books. Afternoons playing pool. Pumpkin beer. Really great paper bags with comfy handles at the grocery store. Record stores with subversive labelling. Backyard chickens. Long warm evenings morphing into nights on the back patio in the company of great friends, whom I wished all lived closer.

Put a bird on it. I will definitely return.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

memory of today

William - Shawn William Clarke

There's an alluring sense of nostalgia that wafts through Shawn William Clarke's sophomore album, William. Brought on partly by an old-timey waltz rhythm that drives several of the tracks, partly by the strong sense of place that permeates all the songs, a feeling of wistfulness always seems float just below the surface.

From the melancholy horns of its opening notes, the lead track Ten Years Ago conjures up the nostalgia of a particularly pensive New Year's Eve. Clarke is sitting there at that abandoned party table with you, pushing toothpicks through the red wine stains on the white tablecloth, commiserating over yet another wasted year. There is immediacy mixed in with the nostalgia, helped along by the closeness of Clarke's warm rich voice, which pulls you into the story.

The tracks on William feature plenty of warm finger-picking, but rather than being a simple backup to a standard singer-songwriter offering, the guitars on this album are part of a vastly fuller sound. There are horns aplenty here, and they are used with considerable authority to instill that old-time sensibility. Even the richly instrumental piece Bellwoods Park feels transported from another era.

It's easy to get lost in the narrative of these songs. And it's easy to forget what year you are in. Especially when a lilting waltz like Forest City references the Zombies and the Clash, the Cars and the Kinks. It's deeply satisfying stuff.

So all you can do is straighten your shoulders, look your partner in the eye and with great stateliness, begin to sweep around the darkened ballroom, perfectly in step.

video: I Blame the Loyalist Ghost

Friday, September 26, 2014

open-ended lives

Open Secrets - Alice Munro

Imagine my joy to find a book of Alice Munro short stories, that I had never even read, in a used book store a few months ago. Once I started reading, the discoveries did not cease. 

A perfectly preserved hand-written boarding pass pressed between the pages fired my imagination, and seemed a particularly suitable accompaniment to a collection of stories about lives revealed yet never fully exposed. Much the way lives really are. Or at least they way they were prior to Facebook.

I have always loved Munro's sense of place, the way she uses a particular town and the community who live out their lives there as a lynchpin that links the short stories into a cohesive unit. Although a story may not actually take place there, in fact can take place half a world and half a century away, it is still somehow informed by the sensibilities of the place. Somewhere in the tale is always a reference, overt or sly, to that central place.

The stories in Open Secrets are richly told, in true Munro fashion. I have heard her short stories referred to as "shrivelled novels" and there is a lot of truth in that. These are not slices of life, no mere descriptive passages of an afternoon affront. These are fully embodied lives, lived simultaneously with gusto and with reserve. The way lives often are. Many of the stories in Open Secrets end quite abruptly, causing you to turn the page just to ensure that there is not more. 

The way lives often do.    

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday, September 12, 2014

abandon schedules, all ye who enter here

The jug of milk left casually on the counter is a reminder that, left to its own devises, this coffee morning can easily stretch on into early afternoon.

Time moves differently here. City time is discarded with the wrist watches abandoned on bedside tables. Lake time is measured instead in the movement of the clouds, the shifting of the prevailing wind and the barely perceptible passage of sun over water. Fishing boats setting forth and later returning to shore are the only concessions to human circadian rhythms.

Tucked into the far corner of the kitchen, the microwave - with its digital face - inserts its timekeeping only enough to heat a forgotten cup of coffee grown tepid, or to acknowledge the persistent growling of a tummy in search of a snack.

It’s not perfect, of course, this abandonment of big city time. The casual disregard of furnace repairmen who promise to show up and never do quickly loses its charm. But the seasons don’t care. The drama of the clouds will continue to strut across the stage of the enormous sky, sunlit ripples will forever play across the open water, fish will continue to hunt and spawn and die. Even if the pipes do burst or the house burns down.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

new wild

We meet up during times of half-light, me rising with the dawn, she only stirring when the lengthening shadows merge into a single cloak of darkness. Only then, when the full moon on the lake provides the only light, does she feel safe enough to come out from her hiding places. She is not enjoying her trip to the lake place.

As darkness descends, she emerges to do all the normal cat things - eat, drink, explore, express a keen interest in finding a way out that door. Her use of the cottage litter box is a highlight reel in toilet etiquette. We thought by now she would have become more comfortable, but instead it appears that she will spend her days in hiding until it's time for us to tranquilizer her for the 1100 km road trip back home. 

It's such a shame that she won't get to have fun with all the birds and bats, the snakes and chipmunks, that call this place home. Less of a shame that she won't encounter the giant fox and its mini-me counterpart that have been meandering through.

Perhaps cat psychotherapy will be required before next summer.

Friday, August 29, 2014

carpal brain

I have been offered some pretty awesome writing projects lately. I am honoured, of course, as I take each new job as a validation of whatever writing skills I may possess. This is what I have been working toward for the last six years, after all. And unless circumstances make it impossible, I always say yes, of course. But I have to admit that I am biting off a tad more than I can chew these days. The cheeks are full.

Once I stop taking these 2,200 km round-trips to the lake place every two weeks, I will have an easier time staying on top of the wave of work. But for now I am putting my time management skills to the test. Thank goodness for these German micromanagement genes. 

Oh, and I am also planning CommuniQuatre, which will be held in Portland in a few weeks. Hello, hipster heaven!

I am going to ice my wrists and drain my brain with some renovation shows or something this evening, before diving into a week of writing writing writing, followed by a trip across the prairies. With cat.

Here are some recently published pieces that I managed to squeeze out before the carpal tunnel syndrome set in:
and a slightly shorter version, known as thing two

Friday, August 22, 2014

voice of the lake

As we have been settling into our cottage and have had more time to enjoy it (rather than just continuing to complete structural tasks), it's no longer enough that this is our place to get away to. It has become a place in need of an identity.

The lake place has been one of three cottages that I have visited over the past ten days, each one utterly different from the rest. My brother's place, a tiny one-room cottage in the centre of a busy tourist location, has the feel of a rest-stop. A place to spend a few hours away from the bustle of the shops and boardwalk. There's a community bathroom and cook shack and neighbours an arm's length away; you have to like being around lots of people. My sister's place has a real beach feel, with beadboard walls and wicker and a large treed lot in an established beach community. It's a place that lends itself to croquet and paperbacks and sandy flip-flops on deck steps.

And then there is us. Our lot, a former alfalfa field, is treed only in the riparian zone, to which it slopes substantially. There are only three dwellings on our side of the lake and nothing but fields and Manitoba parkland for miles and miles. The lake is a well-known fishing spot, but there is no beach. 

Whites and blues and creams do not fit into the decor here, which is just as well, considering we painted with greens and greys. As we move from subsistence living to becoming accustomed to touches of luxury (with a functioning water and septic system awaiting us when we arrived this time, a driveway put down while we were here, and a fridge and stove on their way next time), the real nature of our lake place is starting to make itself known. 

Although new, it's rustic, with a sturdy wooden deck and a daunting climb to get there. The wood stove that is at the heart of the big room and the little touches that we are adding each time we come out seem to be nudging the lake place toward a woodsy retreat feel. I think I surprised the Spousal Unit with my resounding yes! at his suggestion that we mount a head or antlers or a skull or something on the living room wall. 

I think we have found our lake voice. Now all we need are the trees.

Sunday, August 10, 2014


I have been trying to get along with the Apidae family ever since they moved in, but clearly this is just not working out. 

I am the one making all the compromises: giving them plenty of room, staying out of their way, politely ignoring them as they buzz around. I even forgave them when one of them attacked me a couple of weeks ago, thinking perhaps I somehow brought the attack upon myself. So I gave them more room, tried to be an understanding neighbour.

But no more. Last night one of them attacked me again, inflicting two wounds upon my abdomen. So I killed him.

I really enjoy sitting on my front deck after dinner, reading the newspaper. It's the part of summer that I most look forward to all winter long. But since these red-belted bumble bees have nested under the deck, it's been considerably less fun. 

The entrance to their nest is a small gap between the deck and the wall of the house. There is no way for a non-professional to access it. I don't particularly want to kill these bees, but I don't want to keep getting stung either. It hurts like a mofo. 

I have hung up one of those fake wasp nests to establish my territory, which they completely ignored. I have moved the chairs and table well away from the nest entrance and made sure that their flight path to and from the nest is clear of any obstructions. That seemed to work for a while, until I brought a cup of chamomile tea out with me last night. Who knew bumbles bees became so enraged by chamomile tea?

I used to think that bumble bees were nice. Maybe these red-belted ones are just the assholes of the bumble bee world. Does anybody know Billy the Exterminator's number?

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

found lives

Between the pages of a well-preserved copy of Alice Munro's Open Secrets, that I bought at a second-hand store a few weeks ago, I found a boarding pass. It was in pristine shape, for a slip of paper twenty years old, and it was dated on my birthday. I took this to be a good omen.

While my life was immersed in the minutiae of being a mother to a three-year-old, Ms. W. Takahashi was boarding a flight from Victoria to Smithers. It would have been Thanksgiving weekend, so perhaps Ms. W. Takahashi was returning home after visiting her elderly parents. They pressed her to stay, of course - they hadn't seen her since summer - but she had to be at work early the next morning. She had just started her job a month earlier, after all. She had yet to prove herself.

I was probably walking under a canopy of brilliantly lit maple leaves while she was heading to Gate 1 to board Central Mountain Air flight 993. No doubt I was carrying a handful of perfect red leaves that my three-year-old had insisted on collecting along the way. We would press them later, between wax, and fashion a wreath for the front door, a wreath that inexplicably survived a move halfway across the country three years later.

Perhaps it was the same Thanksgiving Day that will be forever etched in my memory as one of life's perfect moments, those moments when you are fully aware of just how lucky you are to be in that place at that instant, when you tell yourself always remember this. I do remember; I remember how the brilliant afternoon sun illuminated the one yellow tree among all the red ones along the street, I remember how I paused beneath its glowing canopy to feel the warmth, I remember how I savoured the crazy-making aroma of roasting turkey that wafted out from open windows all along the street.

I wonder what Ms. W. Takahashi, in her crisp white linen suit - pulling her neatly packed tiny suitcase along behind her - had for dinner that night. I wonder if her parents had pressed specially made family favourites upon her, insisting that she take them along for her solitary meal. She would have had to unzip her new rolling suitcase to find a spot for those delicacies among the neatly folded clothes.

Her mother's eyes had misted up as she took Ms. W. Takahashi's slender hands in her own gnarled ones. Her father had nodded stoically as she hugged him goodbye. It had been a good weekend, and she would be back for Christmas.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Martian chronicles

One Thousand - Jo-Anne B. Foster

Calgary writer, Jo-Anne B. Foster, has a near-limitless imagination. In her second novel, One Thousand, she has used that fertile imagination to terraform the barren landscape of the planet Mars into a thriving space colony. In doing so, Foster has created an impressively intricate and strangely appealing world.

One Thousand tells the story of a thousand professionals from various disciplines who are recruited by NASA to inhabit a newly built Martian complex. In addition to the expected group of scientists are more unconventional space travellers - writers, painters, photographers (and later musicians and actors). Chronicling the five-year mission - in the form of fictionalized novels about life on Mars - is the main character from Foster's first novel, a novelist who writes under the pseudonym Melinda Frost.

One Thousand is understated in its narrative; the voice of Melinda Frost is refreshingly straight-forward and unembellished by too much internal angst and backstory. Yet, at the same time, the world that Foster has created is quite well-realized. The technological details that she has worked into One Thousand make the Mars colony a functional and surprisingly luxurious compound. 

The plot points of the novel move along swiftly and in an uncomplicated fashion, allowing the details of the new world to be the real focus of the book. Foster paints a richly detailed picture of life on this colony. I was particularly fascinated with the clever minutiae of things such as collapsible glass, specially-designed clothing, and the transplantation of Arctic flora to the Martian soil.

Over the five-year span of the novel, the Mars colonists make impressive technological advances in sustainability. Although these people get a lot more done than I do in five years, Jo-Anne Foster has a way of making these seemingly effortless accomplishments feel quite natural and matter-of-fact. Advances in space travel, for example, have reduced the original trip between Earth and Mars from two months in suspended animation down to two weeks wide-awake. Oddly, the Martian colonists still use Skype to communicate with people back on Earth. But perhaps Skype technology has improved as well.

One Thousand is a charming little book, full of rich details of a mostly utopian world that I wouldn't mind visiting, especially now that I can get there in two weeks.

In the interests of disclosure, I should say that the author is a friend of mine, part of a group of writers who meet weekly to flex some creative muscles. Jo-Anne Foster has obviously been working out. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

sights from the fest: weekend roundup

Friday night memories: nobody doesn't dance when A Tribe Called Red is around

nothing says workshop like Deep Dark Woods

ginger beef and pork belly tacos (not shown), a shady grove and smokin' guitarist Kaki King 

hopefully there is a prize for most foreheads tattoos on stage at once
Waco Brothers kicking out the jams

lamplighter parade with Bruce Cockburn backdrop

Hello Moth, Great Lake Swimmers, Deep Dark Woods - beautiful workshop music

the irrepressible Ms Nilles

festie buddies

approximately 1/10 of the Torch and Twang workshop

Jill Barber, aka Green Dress #2

the Hells (Eve and Mike) enjoying some torching and twanging

the super-talented Mr Steve Fletcher

Ms Festival 2014, Kenna Burima

Friday, July 25, 2014

second day sights: Calgary Folk Fest 2014

insanely awesome dancers

Mary Gauthier

Great Lake Swimmers and some guy's back

festie friends

owls on sticks watching A Tribe Called Red

also unicorns on crutches; you know, the usual
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan
 Fiasco Gelato's Salted Caramel Dark Chocolate gelato was possibly the most awesome thing in a day of awesome things. Consumed before the camera could get out of the bag.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

sights from the night: day one of Calgary Folk Fest 2014

Trampled by Turtles

folkies being Turtle Trampled
oh look, CBC weather dude Craig Larkins doing his report thang right near our tarp

Basia Bulat, happy to be back on the island
mo' Basia

Monday, July 21, 2014

the lazy woman's book review

If you are familiar with David Sedaris' books then you:

a) know exactly how hilarious they are, and
b) probably already read Me Talk Pretty One Day, since it was published in 2000.

If you are not familiar with David Sedaris' books, then I cannot even begin to do justice to them in a book review, and can only suggest that you immediately pick up any David Sedaris book that you can get your hands on. Doesn't matter which one; they are all snorting-coffee-out-your-nose funny.

You can thank me later.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

grey area

Maybe there is a reason why grey is my favourite colour. Neither black nor white, it straddles the horizon line between dark and light.

Evil lives there, peacefully, next to good. They talk over the backyard fence almost every day. They regularly share cups of coffee, amicably, there in the grey zone.

Grey is serenely accommodating in its role as the catch-basin of all extremes. It fulfills my need to see all sides of an argument. It quiets my compulsion to be all things to all people. 

I live in the grey. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

a bit of giddyup

I caved to peer pressure this year, buying new jeans and sandals for Stampede. These were clothes that I desperately needed to buy anyway, but finding them about an hour before having to head out to a fancy Stampede do lent a heady sensation of urgency to the tedium of shopping. I felt like such a desperado.

The National Music Centre Stampede BBQ - held way the hell out of town at The Crossing at Ghost River - was jaw-droppingly spectacular and well worth the trip. It was even worth almost running out of gas on the way home. A gob-smackingly beautiful setting, combined with impeccable hospitality and high-end musical guests made for a first-class party. And I am not just saying that because it was the National Music Centre. This was truly a lesson in how to put on an event.

A lot of the ladies in attendance were pretty giddy to be serenaded by both Jim Cuddy and Paul Brandt during dinner and we were all in awe of the ageless energy of Buffy Sainte-Marie who turned the big white tent into a rocking pow wow during dessert. I swear that woman has a painting of herself getting older in an attic somewhere.

A little closer to home, I got my annual pancake feed at the NMC offic - chocolate chip pancakes, y'all - and managed to feel all responsible by saying no to a late-morning Caesar, opting for orange juice instead. Maybe I am not as cowboy as I thought.

But even my shameless self-promotion is Stampede themed today. My latest Calgary Sun/NMC article features my chat with The Travelling Mabels - a beautifully-harmonizing three-generational female band - about Alberta, country music and Stampede.