Thursday, October 31, 2013

down to the basement

Quite possibly my favourite Hallowe'en party ever came about as a result of a labour dispute. It was the year that the OFKAR was in grade one, the year that Ontario teachers went out on strike, right around the end of October.

We were already getting together with friends/classmates to play school during the strike, so it wasn't much of a stretch to offer up our house for a daytime Hallowe'en party.

About a dozen kids came over, and we played some games and ate a bunch of candy and then, after I got them all warmed up, I led each child one-at-a-time, blindfolded, down into the basement to check out the dead witch. 

It was just the usual bowl of grapes for her eyeballs, bowl of pudding for her brain, bowl of spaghetti for her guts type of setup, and I guess the kids might have been okay with having their hand plunged into something cold and squishy down in the basement of an 85-year-old house if they had all been suave and sophisticated six-year-olds. But the problem was that quite a few of them had brought their younger siblings along. 

Judging from the shrieking and expressions of utter horror on the faces of some of the kids when I tried to lure them down into the basement, I think I may have scarred them for life.

But after we hosed them all down and fed them some graveyard dirt cupcakes, I brought each of them individually into the OKFAR's bedroom (after the basement fiasco, that took some coaxing) where I read their fortunes on a crystal ball that I think was actually a globe in disguise. 

I have always loved Hallowe'en, but that one in particular ruled. I had so much fun terrifying those kids that day that it's probably a very good thing that I never wanted to be a teacher.

Do you have a favourite Hallowe'en memory?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

nights like black cats

Less than 24 hours until the undead and the creepy clowns and the Miley Cyruses and the Batmans descend upon the neighbourhood and this house is still fully stocked with the original purchase of mini chocolate bars.

I don't know whether to be impressed or slightly freaked out.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

trouble dying

The Book of Negroes
- Lawrence Hill

I am not generally drawn to historical fiction, but found myself one day a couple of months ago in the situation of needing a new novel to read, having The Book of Negroes close at hand and deciding to give it a chance. I am glad that I did.

The Book of Negroes is a sprawling tale that crisscrosses the globe, from a village in Africa to an indigo plantation in South Carolina, from New York to Nova Scotia, from Sierra Leone to London. It is the story of Aminata Diallo, possibly one of the strongest and most resourceful female characters to lead a novel in quite some time.  

The Book of Negroes opens in London in 1802 where Aminata, now an old woman, has relocated in order to testify on behalf of abolitionists. The story unfolds as the former slave looks back on her life. It has been a life filled with brutality and hardship, but also with resolve and friendship and humanity found in unlikely places.

Snatched from her African village by slave traders at the age of eleven, Aminata is marched in a slave coffle for three months before reaching the coast and a slave ship destined for America. Having learned midwifery from her mother and reading and writing from her father, Aminata draws on those skills for survival in a brutal world. She proves to be a resourceful, determined woman, able to live by her wits, to teach and inspire others, despite the loss of so many dear to her.

The title of the book (which comes with its own side-story of controversy) comes from a historical document kept by British naval officers to document black loyalists who, through their service to England, were permitted to flee Manhattan in the late 1700's for freedom in Nova Scotia. I was chagrined to realize that I knew very little about the former slaves who struggled to make a life for themselves in Nova Scotia. My knowledge of Canadian history has some obvious gaps. 

In The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill has written a compelling, well-researched novel that seamlessly weaves documented historical events and real people into a story that is at once rivetting, shocking, and uplifting. And his greatest triumph is in his creation of Aminata Diallo herself. She may be a product of Hill's fertile imagination, but to me she is very present and very real. Her courage and heroism will stay with me for a very long time. 

I am certainly not the first person to praise this book, of course (despite the Dutch fellow who threatened to burn it). The Book of Negroes won the 2007 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the 2009 Canada Reads contest. It has also been chosen by the Calgary Public Library as this year's One Book One Calgary selection, the one book that all of Calgary should read.

You should read it too.

Addendum: Many thanks to my dear friend Matthew for passing along this book to me, which I just realized has been autographed. No take backs.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

post frame

I have unclasped the tool belt, dropped it on the floor, and am tossing the hammer and the angle iron, plus a few stray nails that I found lying around, back into the tool kit. Reconstruction, at least for now, is done.

I'm quite happy with the new look of the blog. It feels tidy and fresh. Now, as I fluff a few pillows and arrange a throw blanket artfully over the arm of the chesterfield, I realize that I need to stop standing here with my arms crossed admiring my handiwork. Time to actually start using this place.

For today, baby steps. When pressed for time, link. Please check out my latest review on the National Music Centre blog: Matthew Good - Arrows of Desire.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

slash and burn

Astute readers may notice that things are starting to look a little different in this little corner of the blogosphere. After squatting on this piece of digital real estate for over eight years, it was time for a renovation. No more duct taping the torn carpets and painting over the rotting window frames. It was time to gut the homestead, rip out the mouldy joists and rebuild from the ground up.

Rebuilding is not going to happen overnight, but I hope you will enjoy the increased elbow room and the high-end fixtures. Breathe deep for a big lungful of that heady new-blog smell.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

easy to swallow

Gulp: Adventures on the 
Alimentary Canal
- Mary Roach 

In the final paragraph of  Gulp, Mary Roach says something that confirms that she and I are indeed kindred spirits. I have long suspected as much, frankly. One of my favourite writers, Roach has always charmed me with her humour, her insatiable scientific curiosity and her bravery in letting her geek flag proudly fly.

But when Roach describes the awe and amazement that she felt while witnessing her own colonoscopy, I was really tempted to track her down and give her a call. Because I know we would be best friends.

Here's that final paragraph of Gulp:  

 "There is an unnameable feeling I have had maybe ten times in my life. It is a mix of wonder, privilege, humility. An awe that borders on fear. I've felt it in a field of snow on the outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska, with the northern lights whipping overhead so seemingly close I dropped to my knees. I am walloped by it on dark nights in the mountains, looking up at the sparkling smear of our galaxy. Laying eyes on my own ileocecal valve, peering into my appendix from within, bearing witness to the magnificent complexity of the human body, I felt, let's be honest, mild to moderate cramping. But you understand what I'm getting at here. Most of us pass our whole lives never once laying eyes on our organs, the most precious and amazing things we own. Until something goes wrong, we barely give them a thought. This seems strange to me. How is that we find Christina Aguilera more interesting than the inside of our own bodies? It is, of course, possible that I seem strange. You may be thinking, Wow, that Mary Roach has her head up her ass. To which I say: Only briefly, and with the utmost respect."

I, for one, would be delighted to swap colonoscopy stories with Mary Roach and I have a feeling she would even be interested in viewing my colonoscopy photos and report card (A+ for adequate bowel preparation), which of course I kept. I plan to show it to my grandchildren at every possible occasion.

But I digress. Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal is a fascinating look at the digestive tract, from top to bottom. From Roach's visit to an olfactory lab and a dog kibble plant, from early crude experiments in human digestion to modern day fart science, and of course all the way through to the wonders of excretion, this book is drop-dead fascinating. Strangely, I do believe it to be suitable for the squeamish, although I wouldn't recommend reading certain chapters at the dinner table.

But do read it! It's fabulous! 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

soup pot rebellion

With the leavings of the Thanksgiving turkey dispatched to the soup pot, this year the cook broke with long-standing tradition. 

No noodles. 

Shocking, I know, but this year the remains of the noble bird were accompanied by the humble barley. And with that stunning swerve away from the beaten durum wheat track came a few tweaks - the addition of a considerable amount of spinach, quite a few more carrots, a soupcon of hot sauce.

I've always loved barley, and my affection for turkey is well documented. It was only a matter of time before the two became a whole lot cozier.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Strangely, for a time of year that sees the wild critters in a flurry of planning for the future, autumn really forces you to live in the moment. Particularly here, in the shadow of the Rockies, where the brilliant season passes in a flash, you don't have the liberty of waiting until tomorrow to take in the colours and the smells of autumn. 

Basking must be done now. Two weeks of colour and the autumn winds will bring down any clinging leaves, inevitably followed by the first snow of the year. 

In Alberta, in the autumn, we are all Buddhists.

Monday, October 07, 2013


 I still find it hard to believe that I have been married to this guy for a quarter century now.

Smartest thing I ever did.

Happy anniversary, Spousal Unit! Here's to the next twenty-five.

Friday, October 04, 2013

host vector

Being a freelance writer is sort of the exact opposite of being an elementary school teacher in a lot of ways, but particularly in regards to one crucial factor. A major advantage of the freelance lifestyle, by nature of working largely from home and just darting in and out of events that are usually free of runny-nosed kids, is that one can generally dodge the current disease vectors. I haven't been sick in years.

The downside to the freelance lifestyle is that when the unsuspecting freelancer is suddenly thrust into an enclosed office situation, as I have been for the past month, those viruses immediately recognize the newcomer as an unprotected target. When office worker zero starts passing around the latest and the greatest of the seasonal contagions, those pathogens waste no time going after the new guy. Me. 

Granted, I did manage to stave off attack until about three-quarters of the office resembled a poorly-maintained microbiology lab (which I credit to good clean living and the fact that I have no social life), but eventually those keyboards that I was licking on a daily basis transmitted that nasty microbe to me. 

This is not the ideal time to get sick (although if there is a time that fits that description I have yet to come across it), so I am very glad that today I don't work until late afternoon and that this weekend I only have a few hours of work per day. So I am stocking up on oranges, pain-killers, blankets and down-time. We shall overcome.