Thursday, September 30, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

It was 1994 when I first heard university students singing and dancing along to ABBA. I started to laugh. To me, ABBA was the music on the vinyl records at the houses I babysat at. It was music of the late 70s. I remember being incredulous in 1994 that ABBA had made their big comeback. Ten years later, my young sister-in-law laughed when I told her I had never truly lost my love for skinny jeans - but within a couple of years, they had become fashionable again and she too gave up her wide-legged pants.

Everything old is new again.

The other day, I saw a sign outside a restaurant inviting patrons to enjoy locally brewed beer on their patio. It got me to thinking about how, years ago, local went the way of wide-legged jeans.

I imagined a time when the world felt chaotic after the war and when the idea of standardized, systematized, regular, knowing-what-to-expect felt comforting and safe. Open a McDonalds burger and you'll find your pickles arranged just so, whether you are in Moosejaw or Montreal. Same-sized eggs. Uniformly perfect apples. Brands you can buy at home or on holidays. Labels that made you feel big cityish even if you lived in a small town. Starbucks instead of going to the local diner for coffee in a chipped cup. Sophistication instead of same old-same old.

Now the pendulum has shifted again. Uniform red tomatoes have less taste than the variety of weird-looking heritage ones. Thoughts of local sufficiency and consuming less fossils have fueled our consumer trends toward eating the view. Local honey counteracts local allergens.

I have yet to see a non-ironic power blue frilly tuxedo in the 21st century. Some things - mercifully - don't come back.

But I wonder, what will last? Where will we be five years from now? In our wide-legged jeans, will we have shifted back to global foods? or will an orange in the toe of our Christmas stocking be an unaccustomed treat? Will we even have choices to make - or will our choices be made for us by the choices we make today.

I don't always follow trends (See Skinny pants). I am actually irked by the glass wall that comes up at 100 miles for the Correct Diet Today. I have almost always eaten seasonally - have you tried that dead corn-on-the-cob that is available in January? - and locally. I have always loved going to farmers markets wherever I am, learning about how people eat in that place. I'm concerned that buying locally is a fad that will be abandoned as quickly as a 1970s pop group. I hope not.

For the sake of our planet and our taste buds, I hope not.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why lack of bathing prevents me from getting a job

Made you look, didn't I?

My skin dries out if I bathe every day, and my hair gets lank if I wait two days to shower. I like both baths and showers. So, I bathe every day and a half - usually showering, say, Monday morning and then a bath on Tuesday night.

It works well for me in all ways but one: schedule.

My husband gets up at the same time each day, showers and goes about his day. Me, it's a little more syncopated than that.

As I was having my shower this morning, I was thinking about this. Thinking about the parallels between my semi-erratic bathing habits and the fact that I don't have a regular job, and am trying to sort out whether or not I should.

I react against being a Lady who Lunches. I don't want to walk a small, yappy dog about the neighbourhood, exercising and exfoliating to fill my days. But neither do I want to be tethered to a cubicle on sunny summer days. And yet, all the good jobs tend to be fulltime ones.

Freelancing continues to work for me - it allows me to be relatively well paid for flexible, meaningful work; it allows me time to volunteer and write fiction and, yes, meet friends for the occasional lunch. Even to exfoliate periodically.

Still, I waffle. Just as I would like the orderliness of showering or bathing every day at the same time, part of me craves the simplicity, definition and salary of a regular gig.

I have decided that this is not the year for that. I need one more year to finish up the book I am writing and to finish a major volunteer task I've taken on. A year from now, too, my youngest will be old enough to stay home on her own for 20 minutes in the morning. A year will make a big difference, I think.

But then again, I wonder whether a year will make the difference, or whether I will never be someone who bathes at the same time each day and sits at the same desk for the same hours.

We'll have to see.

If the women can't find you handsome

I always knew when Red Green was on television. I would hear great gasps of laughter coming from my husband. Nothing else ever elicited that kind of laugh. Red Green was a character of actor Steve Smith's. A bumbling do-it-yourselfer who belonged to a lodge of equally memorable characters. One of his lines was, "If the women can't find you handsome, they should at least find you handy."

Fortunately, I find my husband both handsome and handy.

Last week, we hired another handyman, though, to build, plumb and electrify a new laundry area on our main floor. I took inordinate pleasure in having Adam here, working away, and I tried to analyze why. Did I enjoy the feeling of being the Lady of the Manor? Did I enjoy the company of another person in the house while I worked? It was neither of those really.

What I love about having a handy-person around is that they make my creative vision into reality.

My own hand-eye coordination is limited. I'm not a technical person - as a toddler, my daughter once looked up at me in amazement and said, "YOU can fix?" Yes, honey. A little bit.

I can cook and tell stories. Those are my main creative outlets. But I also have a larger creative vision that primarily involves my home. The problem is that other than describing what I want done and choosing the paint colours, I'm really not very useful. It can be frustrating. Plus Dave has a job, which means he isn't always available to "make it so!"

Enter Adam.

I was embarking on the beginning of my new novel - the one that has been brewing in the back of my mind all summer - as Adam came to our house a week or so ago. I had researched all summer and then circled the story like a cold pool, ready but not quite ready to take the plunge.

We ripped out the old purple wall - okay, Dave ripped it out - a few days before Adam arrived. Our office looked like a television stage set with the wall missing.

Everyone went back to school and I sat down and began to write. It reminded me, oddly enough of the stomach flu - only instead of uncontrollable vomit and heaving, I had copious words and ideas flowing from my pen. I told a friend that if I didn't have to eat and sleep and rest my brain, I could keep writing endlessly.

And then Adam arrived. He set to work, quietly and methodically and by the end of that first day, he had hammered in the wooden frame that would be the walls of the new laundry area and the doorway to the foreshortened office.

I felt like I was watching my own process made visible.

It was very satisfying.

It turns out a novel takes longer to hatch than a laundry room. And a laundry room, possibly, pays better. We did our first load of laundry last night and there were no leaks, no sprays, no running down to the dingy basement. I felt like a queen. But a substantial part of that satisfaction was that someone, once again, had taken my ideas and direction and made it real.

My job is to bring the same workmanship and craftsmanship to the novel. And then, hopefully, to experience even deeper satisfaction from being the one who can make it so.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Anthony Doerr on Writing and Seeing

Upon the occasion of watching a cardinal announce the selection of a new Pope in Rome.

"Every story seeks, in Emerson's words, the 'invisible and imponderable,' Faith, loss, emotional contact. But to get there, oddly enough, the storyteller must use the visible, the physical, the eminently tangible; the reader first and foremost must be convinced. And details - the right details in the right places - are what do the convincing. The ringing mouth of a 9-ton bell, green with verdigris, shows itself, then sweeps away again. A gilded carpet unfurls from a balcony. Two three-story curtains ripple, then part. A man steps into the light.

"The glory of architecture, the puffing chimney, the starched white robe - these details are carefully chosen, they are there to reinforce majesty, divinity, to assure us that what is said to be happening actually is happening.

"And doesn't a writer do the same thing? Isn't she knitting together scraps of dreams? She hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let a reader see, small and hear a world that seems complete in itself, she builds a stage set and painstakingly hides all the struts and wires and nail holes, then stands back and hopes whoever might come to see it will believe.

"As I work on yet another draft of my story, I try to remember these lessons. A journal entry is for its writer: it helps its writer refine, perceive, and process the world. But a story, a finished piece of writing - is for its reader; it should help its reader refine, perceive, and process the world - the one particular world of the story, which is an invention, a dream,. A writer manufactures a dream. And each draft should present a version of that dream that is more precisely rendered and more consistently sustained than the last.

"Every morning I try to remind myself to give unreservedly, to pore over everything, to test each sentence for fractures in the dream."

Two more:
"In a poem, Tom Andrews once asked the Lord to 'afflict me with Attention Surplus Disorder so I can see what is in front of my face.'"

"The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself."

Amen, amen and amen.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Three Things

1. "Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We'd pass out every time we saw - actually saw - a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there'd be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs." Anthony Doerr - Four Seasons in Rome

2. A woman I know only slightly lost her daughter on the weekend - a virus, complications from surgery, bleeding brain. She was 16 and lovely. An only child.

3. One Day on Earth

One Day on Earth - Original Trailer from One Day On Earth on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Savour, Squander, Hoard

There was a widow in a famine who took in a prophet even though all she had was a small jar of oil and a small bowl of flour. And yet, there was enough for three years of famine. It was a miracle.

On Sunday, I was listening to a food show on the radio. The guest ran olive oil tastings from his store and suggested the listeners at home find olive oil in the cupboard and taste along with him. Pour it in a small cup, he suggested. Hold it in your hand to warm it. Inhale deeply the cut-grass smell. Pull the oil into your mouth in a quick gulp and then swallow.

I found the silver metal can of olive oil we had received in exchange for a litre of maple syrup when we visited Florence last year. It was the olive oil that had introduced me to how good oil can be. We had used it sparingly but it seemed to last and last and I often thought of Elijah and the widow. Maybe it would never run dry.

Olive oil can last up to two years, the radio guest said, depending on how it is stored. We stored ours in the back of a dark kitchen cupboard.

I took my oil can out. It had always reminded me of a motor oil can. I loved that rugged efficiency - the contrast to the fancy-schmancy bottles in many stores. Their effort went into the oil itself. It was cold-pressed extra-virgin greenness. The woman who traded with us explained that it should never be ruined by mixing it with vinegar. You did that with inferior oils. This one would be best drizzled over bread with a sprinkle of salt on top. Oh, she was right.

I poured the oil into an egg cup and held it in my hands to warm it. And I looked into its depths and there was a trickle of what looked like motor oil suspended in the green liquid. I smelled it - it smelled fine. I dipped a finger - it tasted fine. But I was still dubious. I got a larger glass bowl and poured more. More motor oil. I suspect the can had actually rusted or something had fallen in and gone mouldy.

I poured the rest of the contents into the glass bowl and looked at the measuring lines on the side. A hundred millitres remained.

Fully ten percent of the elixir of Italian delight. Ruined.

I wasn't sure I would be able to dump it down the drain, but I did. It was the last day of summer holidays - New Year's Eve, so to speak. A day for reflection.

Apparently, fully 30% of all purchased food gets thrown out, mostly ruined. According to that measure, my ten percent loss looked pretty good. And it had not been two years and we had kept our oil can correctly stored. But there were more meals I would like to have had with it. More bread to have eaten.

And the summer? And my life? What do I throw away, unused, unappreciated in my life? It does not come back. It goes rancid. What do I throw away by trying to hoard? I throw away the present moment. I always, always struggle with this, tending to live in the past and the future, tending to tinker with the present to make it better. At the end of the first year of my oldest son's life, I realized I could not have savoured it more. I felt pretty much the same way about our two weeks holiday this summer. But so much of the time, I hold back and hoard.

The widow kept spending her oil. She wanted to hoard it. Common sense said to do so. But she spent it and spent it and it was renewed.

The oil went down the drain. The oil can is going off to be recycled. But at the start of this new year, I wonder: how can I spend every single drop? how can I squander less and hoard less? how can I savour every drop?