27 September 2012


Last night, as I was lying awake at 4:00 AM, I composed a really cool blog post in my head. It  was all there - the topic, the phrases, the witty wordplay and underhandedly profound conclusion. And do you think I could remember now what it was about? Nope. Not on your life. It was really interesting, though...

So instead, you're stuck with yet another untitled post. One that's about not much at all. Profundity was lost sometime in that space between 4:00 and 6:00 AM, when my alarm rang (curses upon its cogwheeled innards!) and pulled me out of a dream in which I had lost two of the diamonds from my engagement ring and both the side pieces that hold up the raised center part. But wait - my engagement ring doesn't have a raised center part; the diamonds are sunk into a channel flush with the rest of the ring. Well, go figure. That's the kind of dream it was, not particularly sensible. And for that I gave up a brilliant blog post.

Leaving things untitled can have a number of reasons. Sometimes you just can't think of a title. But there are other times when you have to leave the title off not because you cannot find one, but because there are too many - and none of them fit. When I tell you that I painted one picture called "Very Small Ink People Playing In a Field of Colour", what do you think it's about? Exactly. (It's for sale. $30, and it's yours, frame and all. No, really, if you want it, drop me a mail.) But if I tell you I've got a sculpture called "Women", what does that tell you? Quite. It doesn't really begin to cover it. And so, for the time being, it's actually called "Untitled". Or maybe "Untitled (Women)", to distinguish it from the other "Untitled" stuff I've got kicking around.

And sometimes, whatever the work is, it has no title. Just like me - my friend said I'm a piece of work, but I'm not titled. Other than "Mrs", of course. But I'm not a Duchess, or Marchioness, or even a Countess (one wonders why that's not an Earless. Probably because it would be misread as "lacking ears", rather than "wife of an earl".). I'm not even a Lady - well, I occasionally try to be a lady, but I'll never be A Lady. Unless my man manages to snabble a knighthood for services to the Crown I shall have to remain untitled. And that's quite alright - because, like with my sculpture, none of the titles really fits. Or they all do, but none really sums it up. And they don't come with a coronet, anyway, so I can do without them.

And then there's the times when "Untitled" is the title. Like today.

Life, the Universe, and the Untitled. We're in good company.

Untitled (Women)

24 September 2012

You Can Only Do So Much

Poetry. Magnetic. Yup.
You can only do so much. You know? Several of my friends are gearing up for this year's Christmas art show at the local gallery. I missed the deadline. Well, really, I let it intentionally slip by. I didn't have anything ready to put in, unless I was going to offer them a few pieces from last year, including a couple they had rejected then. But you know what? I just didn't feel like doing the art show this year. I'll go and admire my friends' work, and maybe even find some new artists to admire, and then I'll go home and enjoy the fact that I didn't have to stress about getting artwork ready for it myself.

It feels a bit weird, though, not doing it this year, because last year's show was a resounding success for me. I sold more pieces than I ever have before in my life. You'd think I'd strike the iron while it was hot, wouldn't you? Or, as it were, strike the clay while it was cold, wet and squishy. (When it's hot, you don't want to go near it, let alone strike it - the glaze firing runs to 1200°C, it melts everything up to and including some types of rocks.) But, well, I've got other things on my mind. And the whole thing about last year's show was that I did it purely for fun. The pieces I put in, I'd made for fun; participating in the show, putting things together for submission, that was fun; and when I sold stuff and got a cheque out of the deal - hoo boy, you bet that was fun! But it was bonus fun, not the point of the exercise.

Whereas right now - what do I do for fun? Write weird magnetic poetry. Or rambly blog posts. And watch my favourite movies, reread my favourite English authors, develop crushes on Lord Peter Wimsey, Inspector Alleyn, Edmund Bertram and the actors who play them, and occasionally cook or bake something good to eat that's not the same-old-same-old thing I make so often it bores me to tears (or causes tears, anyway; the large amount of chopped onions required might exacerbate the boredom-induced lachrymosity).

The thing is that what passes for my work right now, namely my grad school studies, actually requires a fair amount of creative thought and effort. And I have only so much of that creative energy. When I need to write essays for school, or even, as is the case this week, stories and poems (which qualify as fun, or at least creative satisfaction, in their own right), my capacity for "getting things done" is pretty much used up.

It's a little embarrassing at times when people ask me if I have "done any pottery lately" (or painting, or soap-making, or insert-any-of-the-dozens-of-hobbies-I've-had-in-the-past), and I have to answer, quite plainly, "Nope!"

I've composed a lemon cake on Saturday, though, does that count? It's quite delicious. And baked a few poems. And I think I almost figured out whodunnit in "Death and the Dancing Footman"; that takes time, too, you know? I think it should count. You can only do so much.

Life, the Universe, and Good Things To Do. Sometimes you need to get choosy about what you spend your time on.

23 September 2012


The cemetary under the cedar trees


I didn't know
she had been gone a year
this little old English lady
so tiny and so sweet.
"Mrs C., your hold is here!"
"Thank you, dear,
we'll come down presently!"
I did not know.
But here she lies
under the cedar tree
next to her son
of whom
I also hadn't known.
Her husband
small and slight
and such a gentleman
left to himself.
I'm sure he'll meet her

Written at the cemetary, 22.9.2012

19 September 2012

Peaches Behind a Void

Me, contemplating some luscious fruit on the kitchen counter: "Peaches. Peaches! Should I have a peach?"
Son: "Yes. Have a peach. As long as it isn't behind a void."

What he was referring to is, of course, this:

Life, the Universe, and Peaches Behind a Void. Ah, the power of poetry.

14 September 2012

Sock Puppetry, or: Showing Off and Hiding Out

The Duchess of Parma

There's this lovely term floating around the internet: sock puppetry. In case you haven't run across it, it's when people build themselves fake identities in order to make themselves (in their regular identity) look good. Say, for example, if I created multiple google accounts for myself, and then posted admiring responses to my own blog posts, that would be sock puppetry. (No, Steve made his own account, I had nothing to do with it. Excuse me? Who're you to say that a bear with two-inch-wide fuzzy paws can't type?)

But there's another, subtler form of sock puppetry. Oh, perhaps it's not technically called that. But I think it might well be. It's when we portray one persona on the internet, but behind the scenes, things are really different.

I used to do puppetry in high school. Marionetteering, to be exact (handling marionettes, string puppets). I have some photos from the first show I was part of, a production of Dr. Faustus - not Goethe's classical piece, but one closer to Marlowe's original. My character was the Duchess of Parma (I both handled and voiced her; we recorded the play on tape and then moved the puppets to that soundtrack for the performance). She's a beautiful, elegant noblewoman who does some heavy-duty flirting with Faust, but doesn't really get anywhere with it. But I was also Helen of Troy, a speechless specter which is used by Mephistopheles to seduce Faust away from his impending conversion. And I was a silly-looking demon, who, at the beginning of the play, gets rejected in favour of Mephistopheles (being a much more sophisticated-looking devil, the latter was obviously better suited to Faust's purposes. I mean, he had a silk-lined cloak - how could my sackcloth-clad character compete with that?). But really, literally behind the scenes, where we stood on a little walkway holding the cross bars over the miniature stage on which we made the marionettes dance, hidden behind the backdrop, I was an awkward, naive eighth-grade girl who had a crush on the boy who manned the sound equipment (I think for the most part he was unaware of my existence).

When you're doing puppetry, you can hide behind the backdrop. On the internet, you can be whoever you want to be. You can, all at the same time, show off and hide out. You can tell people in the breeziest of tones about your latest wonderful project, and make yourself sound like you've got it all together. But meanwhile, your world isn't nearly so cheery and bright. You've been fighting fatigue and depression for weeks (or not fighting it, as it were). You've been dumped by a friend whom you were trying to help. Your beloved kitten has vanished; he's almost certainly become coyote bait. Your garden is going to pot (no, not weed. Just weeds. And the plants you liked died of thirst). Your remaining kitty, the neurotic one, has gone and pooped in your bathtub (fortunately, you weren't in it at the time). And so on.

I think it's interesting that the word "person", or "persona", comes from the Latin or Greek word for "mask, character in a drama". We wear masks. We play puppets; whether sock puppets or string puppets, it hardly matters. I don't know if we can get away from it, from presenting one persona in one place, and another one in another; the whole of us just doesn't fit on that little marionette stage.

Internet sock puppetry is offensive because it is meant to deceive. But perhaps it's possible to play our puppet personas without deception. I don't think anyone who watched that production of Dr Faustus, back in 1981, was  really under the impression that any of us were the characters we voiced and acted (well, if they thought that I was, in fact, a ten-inch-high Italian duchess, let's leave them their illusions; they're probably happier that way). Masks don't have to mean deception. Sometimes they can even be protection. Sometimes it's safer to hide behind the scenes, and the dusky lighting backstage can be comforting. So long as, at the end of the play, you step out from behind the curtain, and rejoin your friends and family who have come to watch you do your thing with the puppet on the string. So long as you're not trying to deceive.

Life, the Universe, Showing Off and Hiding Out. Sometimes things are better on that tiny little stage.

12 September 2012

Walnut Ink, or: Quill and Qwerty, Part 2

Well, darlings, I said yesterday I'd tell you about the time I was writing with a dip pen recently, so I'd better do it, eh? The telling, not the writing.

See, what went down was this: I got hijacked by another project. It happens, sometimes. Somebody is doing something really fascinating, and if I haven't got anything better to do (and, unfortunately, not infrequently even when I do have something better to do) I'm overcome by this desire to try it out, whatever it is they're doing. So this one was ink making. That's right, you heard: making ink. Out of black walnut husks.

Now, it just so happens we have a walnut tree in our garden; it was one of the few food-bearing plants that were here when we moved in. We don't usually get much from that tree, but this year, it's fairly full. So on Labour Day (which this year fell on September 3rd), I suddenly was seized by an urge to make walnut ink, and after some judicious googling to find out the recipe, proceeded to rob the tree of about two dozen of its fruits. Most of the ones I got were still green; according to information received, it'd be even better once they're all black and dry and shrivelly, but the green ones work too.

Two dozen black walnuts in the husk, chuck in a pot, cover with water. Put on to boil. Boil and boil and boil and boil. It'll stink quite horribly, and the walnuts will turn black and sludgy. Iron oxide, a.k.a. rust, will help the ink turn black rather than brown, so you can either boil your ink in a rusty cast-iron pot (but if you have one of those, shame on you for letting it go rusty! And don't you dare use it for boiling ink, but hand it over to me, and I'll clean it and season it and use it for cooking stew.) or you can do what I did, namely chuck some rusty nails in the walnut sludge. Oh, by the way, the stuff becomes a potent dye quite quickly; the wooden spoon I used to stir it went from the sort of blonde colour it started with to a lovely mahogany tone by the time I was done. Okay, so after several hours of stinky boiling (some of the recipes said to boil it for eight hours; I did more like four), you've got black sludge. Take some cheese cloth, dump sludge into it, drain it through. Put on your authentic medieval disposable latex gloves, and squeeze the cheese cloth to get as much of the ink out of the sludge as possible (the gloves are optional, but highly recommended unless you want really brown fingers. If your fingers are brown to start with, you probably don't have to worry about it). Test your ink. If it's dark enough for your liking, great; if not, put it back in the pot and boil it down. And voilĂ , you've got ink!

So then I put the ink in a couple of lovely ink bottles - one of them came with a chemistry set that belonged to an uncle of mine when he was a kid, so it must have been from ca. 1935 - pulled out my Speedball dip pen, and tried it out. And what do you know, it works! Fun, isn't it?

So, next time you're stranded on a deserted island full of walnut trees and rusty-nail bushes, you'll be able to do your own ink boiling, so you have something for writing your messages to stick in bottles (oh, yes, walnut ink is also semi-waterproof). Or maybe you can write your memoir. Or engage in a vigorous correspondence with the guy over on the next island, once you've traded a bottle of your ink for a ream of his paper which he made from palm tree fronds. What do you mean, paper isn't made from palm tree fronds? Fine, I'll go look it up. I'll let you know what I find, if I don't get sidetracked into papermaking next...

Life, the Universe, and Black Walnut Ink. Have you ever tried writing with a dip pen?

11 September 2012

Quill and Qwerty

The quill and the QWERTY. Well, the quill and qwerty keyboard, anyway. It's amazing what's come out of those humble tools in the last, oh, four millenia. (I do believe the ancient Egyptians already used the quill to draw their strange cubist pharaohs, so, yes, four millennia. If not more.)

I did a bit of writing with a dip pen the other day (I'll tell you about that some other time), and found myself quite astonished that the likes of Austen were able to write whole books with that method. And they had really fancy handwriting, to boot. Once, a long time ago, I tried using a proper quill, i.e. a goose feather carved to shape with a sharp knife, and I couldn't manage it. Scrape, scratch, splatter...

And now I'm so used to the computer QWERTY keyboard that I'm starting to find myself amazed how anyone could write whole books by hand at all, even with a regular pen, be it ballpoint, fountain, gel or felt. Or a pencil.

For me, ballpoint would be out of the question; I get hand cramps from those things in very short order. Gel isn't much better. Felt is okay, but my writing instrument of choice for anything meant to be permanent is a fountain pen. Yes, an old-fashioned fountain pen. Though not quite as old-fashioned as the one in the picture; that one belonged to my grandfather, so it's from no later than the 1950's, maybe even as old as the 1920's or 30's. It's the plunger type, with a piston ink reservoir in the belly.

No, the kind I use are the ones I learned to write with, back in Germany in the 70's, with neat and tidy ink cartridges to put in it. Usually royal blue, but when I got to my teens I really enjoyed paying a bit extra and getting the fancy coloured inks. They even had scented ones for a while in the little junk shop where I liked browsing. My grade 11 math teacher was not impressed with the yellow and orange; he said he could barely see them on the page. So I had to switch back to turquoise, and green, and purple. I even had brown for a while; but I can't remember what the scent of that one was. (No, it definitely wasn't what you think! Get your mind out of the gutter.)

Now, I just rattle my fingers over the keyboard, with great speed and inaccuracy. My backspace button gets used about as much as the space bar, I think.

Life, the Universe, the Quill and QWERTY. What's your favourite writing tool?

06 September 2012

Malicious Software

This picture has very little to do with this post
It's been said that computers are now called upon to perform functions that were previously done by living creatures, such as eating your homework, which used to be the dog's job. Well, today it came to my attention that the internet can even perform the function of the maliciously plotting wicked witch.

This morning, I happened to look into the junk mail folder of my mail program, and I found an email from a friend that he had sent two months ago. TWO MONTHS! And I'd been wondering why I hadn't heard from him, and he wondered the same thing about me. Here we were, sitting on opposite sides of the Valley, feeling like we had unwittingly offended the other (else they'd be writing, wouldn't they?), when all along it was Thunderbird, maliciously holding on to the message which could have kept our email exchange humming along happily all summer.

It's rather like the ballad of the prince who was going to swim the deep waters to meet the princess on the other side, but the malicious enchantress (or nun, depending on the version) blows out the candle the princess put in the window for him to see by, and he drowns. Oh tragedy. He probably lost his hair net in the water, too. But no, actually, that story isn't quite right (and not just cause I ain't no prince swimmin' for no princess, neither). The one I'm thinking of is where the malicious enchantress withholds the letter that would have made everything well. Othello? No, that involves a stolen hanky, in addition to lots of maliciousness. Wait, Romeo and Juliet! That's got a missing letter in it, I think. But no maliciousness, at least not in the communications mishap, just lots of silliness. Ah, well, I can't think of the specific example right now, but there's probably a Shakespeare version of it, whatever it is, as well as a Brothers Grimm story (which are, let me assure you, often quite grim. Red-hot shoes for dancing in, anyone?).

So, I'm quite convinced that the internet, specifically email programs and social media software, is, deep down, a malicious plotter which is out to mess up our friendships. It makes us THINK it delivered the message, but meanwhile, on the other end, it's surreptitiously marking our mail as junk and throwing it in the recycling bin with all the tin cans with crusty tomato sauce on the inside and last week's advertising fliers. It's only by a fluke that you'll ever find it again, when you're digging through the bin for the receipt you chucked in there that you now absolutely have to have or you won't be able to get back your money on those ugly shoes you bought on impulse the day before yesterday. At the bottom of the recycling bin, there's the message from your friend. And suddenly, all becomes clear - it wasn't that he was too offended or too sick or too busy to write, it was the internet's fault. Curse you, malicious software!

Life, the Universe, and Friendship-sabotaging Software. Beware the malice of the internet!