30 October 2014

Subscription Issues

It's come to my attention that some of you, who've been following this blog over here, and then subscribed to the postings on the new page, aren't getting mail notifications of new blog posts from over there (you should have been getting several over the last few weeks). Just to be on the safe side, try subscribing again: go to www.amovitam.ca (or www.amovitampress.wordpress.com), and put in your email address in the "subscribe via email" box on the top right corner of the "Home" page. You don't want to miss out on Steve's & my ramblings, now, would you?

02 October 2014

Moving House

Steve pointing you at the new page
So it's official: amo vitam is moving house. From today on, Steve and I will be found over at Wordpress, at amovitampress.wordpress.com. However, I hope that I'll succeed in pointing www.amovitam.ca at the new site, so you can just get at it with that address. But all the old content will stay around over here; so if you feel you really can't do without the borscht recipe that's posted here or another reading of one of our poems, they're not going anywhere.

If you've had a subscription to amo vitam via email, you can continue getting the blog posts into your inbox by hopping over to the new site, simply clicking the nice little button in the top right corner of the "Home" page and putting in your email adress. In fact, please do so right this moment! That way you'll never have to miss any of our oh-so-erudite-and-amazing posts. Especially not the forthcoming announcement!

Life, the Universe, and Moving House. See you on the new page!

19 September 2014

Redecorating

I've been redecorating in anticipation of the new baby. "WHAAAAT?!?" you say, "I didn't know you were pregnant!!!" Well, that's because I'm not. Neither is anyone in my immediate family. No, this isn't a flesh-and-blood kind of baby - it's an intellectual one. A brain child, as it were. And maybe even something that might become my work, for the next little while.

No, I'm not going to tell you what it is quite yet. I think part of the fun of having a baby is waiting for the surprise of finding out what it is - in human babies, whether it's a boy or a girl, in this case, well… But I will tell you, soon.

However, what my point is right now is that I've been redecorating, my website, that is. I've been looking at new ways of layout for the page, making a new background, giving it a new look. As a matter of fact, I've considered moving house entirely - moving the blog from Blogger to Wordpress, which seems to be a more congenial venue for generating traffic. But I'm not sure I can pull it off; my tech skills are not the greatest. I have my resident nerds who can advise me, but they know more about how to write webpages, not how non-tech nerds like myself can deal with them. So I don't know how well all this will work.

Suffice to say, you might see some changes around here in the next little while. Don't worry, it'll all be good (I hope). And in the end, there'll be some exciting news to share.

Incidentally, I've been dreaming about babies rather often lately. For some reason, frequently they're naked babies. Last night's episode featured one with an overflowing diaper - yeah, I know, eeew. But my dreams don't ask for my opinions before they play out in my sleep. I just hope this isn't prophetic about said brain child. Whose arrival, I might add, I very much look forward to.

Life, the Universe, and New Babies. Stay tuned for further announcements.

17 September 2014

Punch

I have this highly scientific, intellectual term for things that move me: they've got punch. No, not the magenta-coloured fruit drink that comes in cans of frozen concentrate. Or the equivalent, somewhat higher-class version mixed with rum that Mary Poppins takes from her medicine spoon (roll those rrrr's: "Rrrrum Punch!"), although the latter probably would have the kind of punch I'm talking about. I mean the kind of punch that socks you in the solar plexus, knocks out your breath for just a moment. In a good way, of course.

I don't know if anyone else uses that term, so I'm not sure if when I say something has punch, people actually understand me. The thing is that I haven't found any better term for that quality. I first came up with it when I was looking at art - actually, it might well have been my own. I've pulled off a few pieces that I liked, and when I tried to describe to myself why, I realised it was because they had that quality, had punch. Not too many, mind you - but a few. It's one of the most satisfying things when I create a piece with punch. I haven't painted or sculpted much lately (funny how grad school takes over your life and sucks out all your creative juices), but I'm sure if I spent a lot of time working on my art, the number of punch-y pieces would eventually increase quite a bit. See, that's what sets apart "real" artists from the dilettantes - real artists have work with punch. And the better they get, the more regular the punch.

Punch is not just found in visual arts, but also in something like this piece of writing by my friend Christopher Bunn, where he talks about joy in spite of difficulties. It's in poems that just knock you flat, because they say it so very precisely - whatever "it" is. It's in a musical composition that moves you to tears even if you don't know why.

So, if you ever show me a piece of art or writing or music you did, and I tell you it's got punch, know that you've been given one of the highest compliments I can bestow. Something with punch is more than just beautiful or skillfully executed, it's got content that moves me. Thankfully, it's not a very rare quality, I've seen it many times. It's not cheap; it does take skill, but more than that, it takes investment on the part of the artist or writer. In fact, perhaps it is that which comes through, the person of the creator, which reaches out and touches something in me.

Punch is hard to explain, which is also why I have yet to find a better, more sophisticated word to replace it. It's a quality I know when I see it, but I cannot tell you (or even myself) ahead of time how to achieve it. At least not yet. Maybe consistent punch comes with experience.

Life, the Universe, and Pieces with Punch. I know it when I see it.

Van Gogh: punchiest painter ever

12 September 2014

The Power of Music

I was feeling kind of down this morning, for a number of reasons. It's morning, it got cloudy, the political situation in our province is not good at the moment. Especially the latter. Politics really gets me down. And much as I try to stay away from it, in this case it directly affects me, so I can't. Ergo, frustration and depression.

And then a friend shared a video clip on Facebook (I'll try to embed the link). It's a group of orthodox Jewish men singing, a capella, around a table (at Seder, maybe?). It's a five-minute movie, and it hit me straight in the heart. Hit me, and lifted my spirits. I don't understand the words to their song, don't even know what language they're singing in - Yiddish, probably - but the sound cut straight through the gloom that surrounded me today. I don't know what it is about those minor keys and the strong beat of Jewish music, but it grabs me like no other and makes me want to start dancing the grapevine.

And that's the power of music. It bypasses all those intellectual barriers, the thoughts and ideas that crowd around us, and goes right for the emotional solar plexus. It crosses international, cultural and linguistic boundaries. And it has the power to soothe, to cheer, to comfort. Martin Luther said that "Once sung is thrice prayed" (which is why he wrote a great number of hymns for the purpose) - it's that powerful. It can express our hearts like nothing else can, even, or perhaps especially, when words fail or when we do not even know we need the expression. That's what I experienced today. I needed to hear that music today, and I didn't even know it.

Life, the Universe, and the Power of Music. It lifted me out of the clouds today.

Addendum: after I posted this to Facebook, another friend of mine managed to track the singers down on Youtube. Apparently it's the Shira Choir, from the States, and the song is called "Im Hashem Lo Yivneh Bayis" and was sung at a Bar Mitzvah. And here it is on Youtube:


04 September 2014

Ten Favourite Reads

I was just nominated by a friend (who just happened to be the supervising prof for my Master's thesis) to take part in the "Ten Favourite Reads" challenge. So I rose to it (the challenge, I mean). I had to resist the urge to primarily list serious works of literature in order to make myself look good to the academics via whose postings I received the challenge, and stop myself from feeling self-conscious about including Georgette Heyer and Rosamunde Pilcher in that list. Well, actually, Pilcher didn't make the Top-10 list, sad to say - but more on that in a minute. So here it is, the honest list of ten favourite books. In fact, I couldn't pick just ten favourite books - more than half the list would have been taken up with Austen, she did write six novels. So I just picked my favourites of the favourites: ten favourite authors, and then the one story I might, by a slim margin, like better than their other works. Here goes, in no particular order:

Jane Austen: Sense & Sensibility
Georgette Heyer: Venetia
J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
C. S. Lewis: The Horse and His Boy
Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
Agatha Christie: Murder on the Links
Ellis Peters: A Morbid Taste for Bones
L. M. Montgomery: The Blue Castle
Brothers Grimm: "Snow White and Rose Red"

I'm sure you're shocked and amazed at the list; you had no idea I like Austen and Heyer and the Brothers Grimm. Yeah, well.

But then, I ran into a problem: there were others (and some of them, yes, serious classic literature) that I also like - they're sort of my almost-favourites. So I ended up with a second list of ten, the runners-up:

Wilhelm Hauff: "Zwerg Nase"
M. M. Kaye: The Ordinary Princess
Rosamunde Pilcher: The End of Summer
Patricia C. Wrede: Dealing With Dragons
Diana Wynne Jones: The Nine Lives of Christopher Chant
Jean Little: From Anna
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Die Leiden des jungen Werther
George Elliot: Middlemarch
Edith Nesbit: Harding's Luck
Carola Dunn: Smuggler's Summer

And I'm sure if I kept going, I could end up with a third and fourth and fifth list, ad infinitum. Or, if I actually spelled out all of my favourite books by all these favourite authors, there'd be over a hundred on the first list alone. But there's limits. Really, you have to quit somewhere. So that's where.

Life, the Universe, and Favourite Reads. What's yours?

25 August 2014

Naming

I woke up at 2:30 this morning, and as I went down into the kitchen for a drink, I saw the stars winking at me through the window. So I stepped out onto the balcony, and was overwhelmed. The display was dazzling last night.

A friend of mine talked some time ago about the importance of naming, how the pleasure of experiencing a garden, for example, is increased by being able to name the plants. I get that. I enjoy being able to call weeds by their name when I yank them out ("Take that, evil cranesbill! Out you go, knapweed!"), but even better, knowing friendly plants ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance." - okay, sorry, that's off topic.). Naming something gives you a little bit of ownership over it, or perhaps some kinship with it.

And so last night, what drew me out on the balcony was the Pleiades, das Siebengestirn - the Sevenstars, that clear cluster which in this hemisphere and at our latitude (50°N, if you must know) is not commonly visible earlier in the year just after dark, so it's a bit of a treat to be able to see it. It was almost directly east, about half-way up in the sky. And just over from it was Capella, in Auriga. In July, around 10:00 PM, it appears just over the horizon to the north; it's exceptionally bright, and it twinkles red and blue - really! - so that when I first saw it some years ago I spent quite some time arguing with my brothers-in-law who were visiting about whether it was a star or a satellite. (I can't remember what my side of the argument was, but looking it up soon turned up the facts of the matter - and the name.)

First I put on my glasses last night, then I went for the binoculars and the star chart. And so I became acquainted with Perseus. No relation to Percy Jackson - well, actually, yes relation to Percy Jackson, I believe he's named after the constellation. Or both the constellation and the teen demigod are named after the Greek hero, whose deeds I can't remember. Perseus (the constellation) is really bright, easy to spot. And it pleases me that I now know another name of a star cluster. It makes the wonder of a brilliant night sky that much deeper - and yet more intimate.

Life, the Universe, and Gazing at the Stars. I love them more for knowing their names.

19 August 2014

Writer's Fatigue

I had great good intentions, I did. I was going to get back to blogging frequently and regularly, and be all erudite and profound and entertaining (maybe even all three at the same time) at least once a week or so. But, somehow, it didn't happen. Summer is trickling away on me, and blog posts are not accumulating.

You see, the fact of the matter is, I've got Writer's Fatigue. I'm tired. Tired of cranking out words, being articulate. Tired of sitting at my computer, putting letters on a screen, then rereading them, changing them, fixing them, rearranging them, and then doing it all again (and again and again). I just finished my big final project for my Master's degree, forty-six pages plus references (if you want to read about it, or even read the whole thing, go over to quillandqwerty, it's got the link on it). And it was the cumulation of two-and-a-half years of grad school - reading, studying, researching - and writing, writing, writing, at least one big paper, usually two or three, each semester. That's an awful lot of words. So now, it seems, my writing ability has trickled out of my ears. My wordsmithing quota has been used up for the time being.

So perhaps, what I'll do instead is give you some pictures. Each one worth a thousand words, no? (Gee whiz, I could have just submitted fifteen photos for my final project, and been done with it... But no, probably not.) So here, for your edification, are some pictures from our recent holiday on the West Coast. I love the Pacific, it's one of my favourite places in the whole world. You're welcome.







Life, the Universe, Writer's Fatigue - and the beauties of the Canadian West Coast.

05 August 2014

Jammin'

raspberry jam at the beginning of the process
I've got a pot of apricot-chili barbecue sauce bubbling on the stove. But as I don't yet know how it's going to turn out (I messed with the recipe), I'm not going to tell you about that right now. I have been meaning to tell you about jam, though, cunningly illustrated with photos from my last jammin' session (the kind on the stove, not with a guitar).

all of ONE jar of raspberry jam!
The event in question involved raspberries and black currants, both from our garden. Well, the currants are strictly speaking from the neighbour's garden, but they hang over the fence, and the neighbours are glad if we clean off our side of the bushes. The raspberries are genuinely from our garden, planted just three years ago. The bushes grew quite nice and big, but unfortunately, they got shorted on water while they were fruiting this year, so the berries were for the most part too tiny to pick. Ah well. I did get half a pound (200g) of berries off the bushes (ooh, aah!), and turned them into jam. That's right. It made precisely one jar, and I hope it's tasty (I also hope to buy some more raspberries at the farmer's market, if there's any left, and make more of the stuff, as it's popular around here).

Raspberry jam is one of the easiest jams to make. The biggest amount of labour is in picking the berries, actually - once that's done, you just wash them, dump them in the pot with sugar, boil, and you're done. To be specific: I make my jam by weight, European style. Five parts berries, four parts sugar, so 1kg of berries to 800g of sugar, or, in this year's case, 200g berries to 160g sugar. For jam, I never use commercial pectin, it works quite well without, and I like the taste much better that way (jelly is a different matter; I have yet to manage a jelly without pectin. I might try it with the concord grapes this fall.).

a rolling boil
The basic jammin' technique is as follows: put the berries in the pot with the sugar, stir. Start boiling on high heat (jam always runs on high heat, never turn it down), stir a lot. Bring to a rolling boil, which means it boils so hard you can't stir it down (see picture). A rolling boil rises really high in the pot, to about twice the height of the original mix, so leave lots of room in the pot. Boil for a while (it varies according to recipe - for raspberries, just a few minutes; strawberries and peaches, more like fifteen minutes). Skim off the foam and put in a cup; it's really tasty on toast. Take pot off burner. Immediately ladle jam into scrupulously clean containers. With jam, I don't bother either sterilising the jars, or hot-water-bath processing them; jam is preserved by its sugar content, not a vacuum seal like other canned produce. I do use the screw rings with the metal lids (which I boil in hot water) and put them on immediately; the heat from the jam is usually enough to seal the lid to keep dust, bugs and air out (the latter will dry the jam out, which isn't so lovely). But you could even just tie some waxed paper or cellophane over the top; it just wouldn't keep as long as in properly airtight jars because the top of the jam will dry out eventually. (As far as keeping quality goes, this kind of jam in well-closed containers could literally last for several years on a cool dark basement shelf. It's best in the first year, and generally it gets eaten long before then, but, you know, just sayin'.)

jelly test (see the drip?)
One more thing: with many jams and jellies, you know they're boiled enough when you can do the jelly test, i.e. when a drop of jelly running off the spoon sort of hangs together (see picture). With raspberry, that's not the case; it'll be completely runny when you put it in the jars, but as soon as it cools it sets up nice and firm-ish. As I said, it's the easiest jam to make - no pitting, peeling, stemming or other fussing with the fruit, and it pretty much always turns out. Well, so far it did for me.

black currant skimmings
The black currant jam needed a bit of a different technique, and it didn't turn out terribly well this year - too runny. But still very tasty. I use the recipe from Marguerite Patten's book Step by Step Cookery (it's Brits, from 1963, quite amusing). It calls for 1 lb. black currants, 3/4 pint water, and 1 1/4 lb. sugar;  you boil the fruit and water first until the currants are soft, and then proceed as above. As I said, mine turned out a bit too runny this year; it should be really great on pancakes.

Life, the Universe, and This Year's Jammin'. Come on over and try some.
the completed glory




01 August 2014

Love of Life

It's August 1st today, which means it's our bloggiversary, Steve's and mine. That's right, four years ago we started hanging out in the cyberworld and bestowing our great wit and wisdom on you all. So that's an occasion to celebrate, no? Every year on this date, I archive my blog posts, and start a new file on my computer for the next round. We're up to "blog 5" now by way of a file name.

A few weeks ago, my cousin got me a lovely necklace at the local Farmer's & Crafter's Market. She wanted to give me a gift, and I saw this piece and loved it, so that's what she got me. It's a carnelian necklace, and it goes with a bracelet I've had for, oh, fifteen years or thereabouts. Actually, the latter is a mandala - you can bend it into all kinds of shapes, use it as a bracelet, hair piece, candle holder, crown for your stuffed bear, or just a plain old fidget. One of my favourite pieces of jewellery, and I always get compliments when I wear it. It's made of stainless steel wire, metal beads, and stones of smoky quartz and carnelian agate.

Steve regally modelling the carnelians
Now, there are deep meanings in those stones. They're supposed to do things for you; you know, attract wealth, peace of mind, love and happiness, or something of that kind. I think. I really don't go for that kind of thing, as a rule; I chose that particular mandala because I liked the colour of the stones and they go with almost everything I wear. So I've never been able to remember what carnelian is supposed to do for me, because I didn't really care.

But then the other day, on our holidays, I was in a gift shop, and they were selling stones - and each of them came with a little card that explained precisely what the stone is supposed to do for you. Of course, I promptly forgot most of what it said about carnelian - I think it was supposed to increase clarity of mind and purpose, or whatever. But one thing stuck out: one of the attitudes carnelian is supposed to foster in its wearer is - wait for it! - Love of Life. So that's why I'm drawn to carnelian, eh? It's the Amo Vitam Stone. Amo vitam, in case you've forgotten (or never knew) is Latin for "I love life", and I started using it as my blog title because AMO happens to be my initials, and because I do - love life, that is.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and the Amo Vitam Stone. Happy Bloggiversary!

12 July 2014

Humanity

We went camping last week, in the same spot we've gone to with our friends every summer for the last few years, just a couple of hours south from us. One of the major attractions of this campground is that it's situated right next to a river, a fairly shallow stream which winds its way right around the campsite and is ideal for floating on with inner tubes and inflatable boats. Usually, that is. This year, we had unseasonably cool, wet weather until just before we went, and even though the weather was really hot by the time we got there, the river water was still very cold, and it was running really high. And that's what led to the big excitement of this camping trip.

It began on Wednesday night. Around ten or eleven o'clock (I don't carry a watch on holidays, so usually don't really know exactly what time it is) we saw the lights of a car slowly driving around the campground. I took one of my many trips to the washroom; the car was stopped in front of it, and it turned out to be the camp warden. I overheard him asking some other campers if they had seen a nineteen-year-old boy on a bicycle, he was missing. But that was all we heard then. In the night, we saw some emergency vehicle lights flashing against the walls of our tent; I slept poorly, worrying about this missing young man.

In the morning, the excitement really started. By 7:30, people in safety vests came around, going from campsite to campsite, handing out photocopied sheets with a description of the missing boy. It gave his name, "19 years old, mentally challenged; black hair with long sideburns, blue t-shirt, black shorts, green bicycle" - a woman's handwriting, probably his mother's. And then the Search-and-Rescue machinery rolled into operation. Our site was quite close to the campground's entrance, so we had a front seat to the action. There were at least three big trucks, one of them outfitted as headquarters (my man went over there to ask if they needed help looking for the boy; they took his name and campsite number, and told him they'd find him if, or rather when, they needed volunteers). They had ATVs, and dog handlers. The helicopter landed, whirling most of the sand off the kids' playground, then took off again to fly slowly up and down the river, the infrared sensors on board trained on the rapidly-running water. Please, God, please, don't let him be in the river…


And then, around 9:30, my son calls out: "I think they found that missing guy! I heard someone say so, and they were clapping!" Sure enough: he was found. Rescue personnel drove from campsite to campsite on ATVs, spreading the good news. I cried… The helicopter flew really low overhead, and made a triumphant "whoop whoop whoop!" noise with its siren; we all waved and cheered. It turned out that the young man had ridden his bike back all the way to town, 120 km over a 1200m-high summit - and he was perfectly safe and unharmed. As my friend said, next time this boy says "Mom, I'm bored, I'm going home," they'd better pay attention.

It was all quite exciting. But what was really moving about this event was the effect it had on all the people involved, ourselves included. The Search-and-Rescue machinery in action was quite a sight to behold - dozens of people out there searching, looking for this one young man. And for those two hours that the search was on in full force, the campground became a community. All of us were worrying, concerned about this one lost boy, praying, hoping - and then so relieved when the good news was spread that he was found safe and unharmed.

It restored my faith in humanity. Yes, we hear so many bad, sad, disturbing stories in the news every day. But this, it showed me that by and large, people do care. We worried about this boy whom we had never met, and probably never will, and we all rejoiced when he was found. One mentally challenged boy who did something silly, and so many people out there concerned for him, and making sure that he was safe. Even one life matters, and it matters to so many people. It was beautiful.

Life, the Universe, and Humanity. There is still so much good in the world.

Steve on the campsite

04 July 2014

Stacks of Stickies

I just mailed off my final grad school paper. That paper, that's why I've been AWOL from the blogging front in the last few months; I've been up to my eyebrows in fairy tales (meaning I've been writing about them, not that what I'm telling you is one). But now it's done, one big treatise on "Cinderella", "Sleeping Beauty", "Beauty and the Beast", and "The Frog Prince". I'll be anxiously awaiting my mark, and then editing the thing for submission to my uni's thesis collection.

So the paper is sent in, and I feel slightly stunned that I'm actually done. Two-and-a-half years of study finished with one click of a button. It can't really be true, can it? But then, there's always one more thing to do after that button has been clicked: I have to de-sticky my research materials. Yes, you know, de-sticky? Take the sticky tags out of the books, of course. I might have mentioned once or thrice, marking books is evil and will get you smote by the library gods. But a grad school student (or indeed any other student) has to keep track of interesting points in books somehow, so, enter the sticky note. I go through pad after pad of those things in the course of my research, plastering them all over the margins of the books, sometimes adorning them with expressive arrows  (← !!!) or erudite comments such as "Does NOT!!" or "pfffffft!", or even, I hesitate to admit, the occasional "IDIOT!" (it's true. I found one like that this time. What can I say - I was justly incensed at a scholar's assessment of my favourite movie.).

So then, by the time I'm finished my writing, I don't need all those place markers any more, and the university library, slack though they may be about the state of their books (I once had one out that sported the dusty print of a running shoe sole across its front page spread), would probably not appreciate all those pink and orange and green bits of paper sticking out of the book. So I pull 'em all out again and pile them on my desk. One stack of stickies indicating just how educated I have become. Or how muddled, either way. It's the sure sign that I really am done with whatever piece of research I've been doing.

And then I dump the stickies into the garbage, take the library books back to the library and put my own books on my book shelf (or pile them on the floor, because there is absolutely no book shelf space to be had any more), and then - then I go and find myself a book to read or a movie to watch that has absolutely nothing to do with whatever I just finished studying. Fairy tales? Hmm, I think I'll read a Regency romance now, thank you. But don't worry, I'll be back to fairy tales soon enough. Even studying them as intensely as this hasn't soured me on the topic, and that, my friends, means that it really is my thing.

Life, the Universe, and Stacks of Stickies. The sign of the end of grad school studies.






08 June 2014

Rose







delicate petal
languidly sleeping
in elaborate shadow.
lazy red whisper
x
x
x
x
x
x
x
rose.



(from the archives, 2005 or '06)

06 May 2014

Stuck in the Stacks

Apologies for the rather lengthy silences on the blogging front these days. My life pretty much looks like this right now:
That's right, I'm stuck in the stacks. Research stacks on fairy tales, "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty" for now, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Frog Prince" hereafter. If you want to hear where I'm rambling my way along the research lane, you can follow me over at quill and qwerty. The last thing I discovered was a really great book by Orson Scott Card, Enchantment, which is a retelling of the "Sleeping Beauty" story, very loosely and very brilliantly. It won't really do much for my paper, but it was very interesting nonetheless. Then again - maybe it will (do something for my paper, that is)? Hmmm...  And there I go, off I go on a rumination rabbit trail again...

Life, the Universe, and Being Stuck in Research Stacks. I'll talk to you when next I surface.

23 April 2014

Precision Scribblings

I just got a second-hand copy of one of my textbooks, Max Lüthi's Es war einmal: Vom Wesen des Volksmärchen (Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales). I bought it via AbeBooks, and it was mailed out from Germany (gotta love AbeBooks). Unfortunately, when you're buying a second-hand book online, you're buying a pig in a poke; there's no telling in advance what kind of shape it's in. The vendor's comment of "Condition: good" might mean almost anything. More than once I've been disappointed at all the scribblings and underlinings and highlightings in the book, and this one is no exception.

However, you've got to say this for Germans: they're tidy scribblers. This book is marked all over, but all the underlining has been done with a ruler. So at least, we've got precision scribblings here. It amuses me.

Incidentally, don't ever let me catch you scribbling in library books. The university library books I've got out right now are, in a lot of cases, a right mess. What is it with uni students? I don't care if you do it with a ruler or while holding the pen between your toes, marking up a library book is vandalism.

Life, the Universe, and Scribblings in Books. Enough with the rant, and on to reading Lüthi.

16 April 2014

Pedant

"Pedant: a person who is excessively concerned with minor details and rules or with displaying academic learning", Google Dictionary says. And here's what's at the head of the Wikipedia article on the same topic: "This article is about a person who is excessively concerned with formalism and precision. For the piece of jewellery, see pendant."

Hehe - now that cracks me up. I suppose only a true pedant would appreciate it - somebody who's picky about detail. No, I'm not a pendant; I'm not wont to dangle off pretty necklaces. And as for being a pedant - who, me? Naaah.  I never show off academic learning, do I? The fact that I tend to feel smug about being able to use grammar properly, down to the correct use of the apostrophe in the possessive case, has nothing to do with any of this. (This all sounds better when you say it with your mouth pursed and your nose elevated just ever-so-slightly.)

What got me thinking of this was that I just wrote this sentence, referring to the country of Bordavia (in Christopher Bunn's latest novella, Rosamonde): "…it's famed for its roses." Hah, get it? Two i-t+s words, one with apostrophe, one without. It's not so hard, is it? Its rules are quite simple: when it's a contraction, you use the apostrophe; when it's a possessive, you don't. Huh, you say? The apostrophe is there to replace a letter (or two) you've left out, in the case of "it's", the space and i of "it is". When it's a possessive, the "s" is part of the word itself, just like in "his" or "hers". Think of it this way: if the country of Bordavia was a "he" instead of an "it", you'd say: "…he's famed for his roses", not "hes famed for hi's roses". See? Same thing for the itses. "He's/it's" and "his/its". Simple, no? My inner pedant is purring right now.

Now, as for pendants, I'm quite fond of those, too. I have some lovely pieces in my jewellery drawer - a silver locket, a jade maple leaf (I think that was a gift from Canadian relatives when I was a kid in Germany), a silver-and-tiger-eye teardrop, a small brass goblet (made by one of my sons in art metal shop), my mother's silver cross with a small blue stone in it (an aquamarine, perhaps? I wore it at my wedding.). In fact, my favourite pendants all have meaning - they've got provenance, i.e. I remember where they came from.

There, and that's the penultimate piece of pedantry for today, explaining to you what "provenance" means, as if you didn't already know or couldn't figure it out for yourself. Pedants of the World, Unite! You have Nothing to Lose But Misplaced Apostrophes! And the really funny thing is that I just mistyped "pedantry" as "pendantry".

Life, the Universe, Pedants and Pendants. Maybe we should stick with the latter, they're prettier.

09 April 2014

Social Realism

Steve got a book! Well, okay, I got a book. A friend found it for me at a second-hand store, and at first I wondered why - I mean, I love kids' books, but why this particular one? Then I cracked open the cover, and all became clear: it's not for me, it's for Steve. Obviously.

It's called Teddy Edward in the Country, by Patrick and Mollie Matthews (published by Golden Pleasure Books in London in 1962), and it's the story of a stuffed bear, Teddy Edward, on a visit to the country with his human, Sarah (they normally live in London), as chronicled by lots of interesting photos. You don't see much of Sarah in the pictures, but lots of cows, swans, rabbits, and even some hedgehogs. And Teddy Edward, of course.

Steve considers it the best thing in Social Realism he's read in a long time; it's very true to life, he says. At least to life in England in the early 1960s.
It kind of threw him for a loop when I told him that the Sarah-girl in the picture is well over fifty now and probably has grandchildren; a bear's lifespan is very different from a human's - some only make it a few years before their plush is loved off, others last decades. For all we know, Teddy Edward is still alive and kicking somewhere in the home counties, and conversing with calves and kittens every summer. Maybe we should try to look him up if we ever make it to England.


Life, the Universe, and Social Realism for Bears. It's all in how you look at it.


27 March 2014

Me, Too

A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook the other day: "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy". The gist of the article is that GenY people, born between the late 70s and mid-90s, are unhappy because of the expectations they have on life - expectations that they're special, and therefore should be extra-successful, not like everyone else. There's a gap between expectation and reality, and that's what makes for unhappiness. Happiness, the author says, is Reality minus Expectations; if the expectations exceed reality, you end up with a negative balance.

Now, I'm not a GenY person, I'm a GenX'er (that's those of us born in the 60s and 70s, between the Boomers and GenY). But what this article is saying applies just as well to us. See, one of the points it makes is that GenY'ers are set up for overblown expectations because of what they see around them, namely on social media. What they - or rather, we - see is the carefully crafted public image of friends, relations and former classmates, the image that is presented to the world via Facebook, Twitter, and whatever else is out there. And guess what? That image is always a pretty one - a flattering profile picture, stories of success, status updates about what a good time we're having at our resort vacation, and so on. So when we take a look around our virtual reality world, everyone else seems to be doing well - everybody else but us.

So do I do it any differently? Nope, I don't. My status updates are chirpy, funny (well, there are great jokes circulating on Facebook), occasionally sentimental, often trivial, sometimes triumphant. But what I don't tell you is that at 4:30 that morning, I was lying in bed sobbing into my pillow because I woke up early (again) and depression crashed in on my head, making me feel like a failure on all fronts. I don't tell you that I've gained thirty pounds in the last three years and hate it (and I certainly don't post a profile picture showing off that fact). I don't tell you that those thirty pounds are the direct result of my habits - too much sitting, too much eating, too much wine, and too little of whatever else one is supposed to do to counteract the poundage accumulation and be generally healthy. I don't tell you these things because I value my privacy, but mostly because vulnerability of this kind of profoundly scary.

It is for all of us. But if you listen to Brené Brown, she'll tell you that it's that very vulnerability that is the pathway to health (emotional health, anyway). Those two little words, "Me, too!", are immensely powerful. And the realisation that behind it all our friends' glowing public profiles hide a whole lot of mess can go a long ways. Our lives are messy. My house is dirty (no, really, it is. I'm not one of those people who apologise for the state of a house that looks like a picture from Better Homes and Gardens. I've got mould on my window frames, dust bunnies in the corners of the rooms, a rim of grunge around the bottom edges of my cupboards, and, please, let's not even talk about the storage area in the basement.), my children didn't turn out the way I had anticipated back in my idealistic twenties (I thought if I raised them "right", they would become a certain kind of person. They didn't. I can't show them off as products of my superior parenting or homeschooling. They're great people whom I like a lot, but they're not what I thought they would, or should, be.), and I never yet did do that amazing, world-saving thing that I thought I would do with my life (I was never quite sure what it would be, just that there would be one). My whole lifestyle - heck, my whole life - isn't what I had expected, what, twenty-five years ago, I would have thought was the "right" way to be.

And if I've ever given the impression in public that my life is, in any shape or form, perfect, I apologise. Because it isn't. I can't stand people who have it all together, who exude that smugness of "I'm right, and my life is right, and if only you did what I do you wouldn't be such a [insert insulting epithet]". Well, I certainly don't have it all together. Not by a long shot. I'm still working on that balance, the happiness equation from that article - Happiness = Reality - Expectations. We usually can't do much to alter the "Reality" variable of that equation, but the "Expectations" one, that's changeable. Our expectations are shaped, in part, by what we see around us, what we perceive others' reality to be. Admitting to who we really are, what our actual reality is, might help make the answer to that equation into a positive number for each other.

And just by way of illustration, here's a picture of Johnny and Steve (Steve just got a cat tongue wash, that's why he's looking a little exhausted). They never have problems with this issue, even though Johnny, for one, well might have: all other cats have four legs, he's only got three. Talk about a gap between expectation and reality! But he never lets it bother him. Maybe it's because he doesn't go on Facebook much.

Life, the Universe, and Expectations. Me, too, friend, me too.

19 March 2014

To Every Thing There Is a Season

March kind of got away on me. It's a really busy season; my head is full of thoughts and my soul and body too tired to process them all. But then the other day I heard this poem read at a gathering, and I was reminded of how much I love it. It brings up the image of a pendulum, swinging slowly back and forth, ticking away the times.
There is a time to every purpose under heaven.

SEASONS

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8


Rain-drenched crocus buds. Spring is here.

26 February 2014

Ontological

Steve meditating on the ontology of a walnut
I reached a milestone today: I was able to use "ontological" in a sentence. If you're going "Huh? Onto-what?", believe me, I know where you're coming from. That word has been the bane of my grad school existence. I've been telling myself that if I ever learned to use it in a sentence, I'd have arrived - and that day came today.

Then again - maybe not. I still haven't used "ontological" in a word combination of my own choosing, I'm just able to quote something someone else said, and actually understand what they're talking about. But that's a big step in the right direction, isn't it? It represents an ontological shift, for me. There, I did it, I did it! Except I'm not entirely sure that what I just said actually makes sense.

Okay, "ontological". What does it actually mean? The word kept cropping up early in my grad school experience, in philosophy readings and such. I kept looking it up to try to get a handle on it, but it still didn't really make sense. The definitions all say something like "Ontology: the study of being", and some go on much longer about it. And usually, when I encountered that word, that definition didn't really help me make any sense of what I was reading. But then, a while back, I was reading some folktale theory, and the word popped up in a context where I actually understood what they were saying (Score!). And then the other day, I ran across a book review on this blog which was talking about Brian Boyd's book On the Origin of Stories, and what Jenny was saying about it made me rush out (metaphorically - into cyberspace, anyway) to get a hold of this book, which was well worth it (I waffle on about it here).

What she said was this: according to Boyd, "people find stories most memorable when the characters of the stories cross ontological boundaries." Huh, you say? Well, here, let me explain, out of my new-found state of enlightenment. The passage in question in Boyd's book analyses Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who. Dr. Seuss constantly messes with our ideas of what's real - specifically, by creating these really weird creatures, with what animals are. We have a quite clear idea of animals' being, and he crosses that boundary and gives fish antlers or puts wheels on some critter. That's ontology - he is saying something about a state of being.

As for finding stories most memorable when the characters "cross ontological boundaries", that's what our fascination with fantasy stories is all about. Think about it: of the blockbuster movies of the last twenty years, probably some 80% (if not more) were fantasies. A neglected boy finds out he's really a wizard. An injured soldier finds himself on a planet of tall blue creatures. A group of small woolly-footed people team up with a wizard and elves to destroy an evil magical ring. (And so on.) We know what things are really like, we have a clear grip on the nature of being - and we love stories that cross those boundaries, that tell of an alternate state of being. Ontological boundaries.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and "Ontological" Used in a Sentence. Oh frabjous day, I have arrived.

21 February 2014

Olympic Hockey

Steve ready to cheer Canada in the Olympics
I don't give a rip about hockey. Oops, did I say that out loud? I might have just jeopardised my chances of ever getting Canadian citizenship. Oh, wait! Wait! Before you send me hate mail, delete the link to my blog, unfriend me on Facebook and refuse to ever speak to me again, hear me out.

It's true, I'm afraid - I don't care about hockey, and I really know nothing about it. But one thing I do know, and that's that Canadians care passionately about this game. I found out just how passionately four years ago, this very Sunday, during the Vancouver Winter Olympics 2010. The Man and I wanted to go for lunch, and we made the mistake of picking the local pub to get our eats. We got into the pub, and it was crowded - really crowded. Maple leaf motifs everywhere. And there was such a sense of excitement the air was practically crackling with it. We did get a seat, and then we realised that on the big TV screens there were guys on skates, and a big arena - that, in fact, they were winding up for the gold medal game, the final day, the BIG ONE - men's hockey, Canada vs. the USA (which tells you right there where our heads were at; we didn't even know it was on that day). I tell you, it was just a little scary. We were there early enough to be able to get our food and get out of there before the game started - slink out, rather. It would have been more than my life would have been worth to say out loud what I just said up top there; the crowd might have just torn me to pieces and fed me to the nearest coyotes. Besides, we knew our seats would get snapped up the minute we left. So we went home, and the Man and the offspring watched the game on TV - I went and had a nap, I'm afraid. But when I got up from my nap, I found out that Canada had, indeed, got the gold; at overtime, in a very dramatic play, no less.

And you know what? I was thrilled! I was so very, very excited. Not because the game means anything to me, but because the whole country erupted in celebration. All around me, people were ecstatic. The atmosphere of triumph, of victory, was fantastic. And it was EVERYWHERE. To have won the gold medal in Canada's sport on Canadian home soil - there was nothing like it. Canada was one big party zone that day. It was wonderful.

The 2010 Olympic Flame coming through our little town
I might not care about the game, but I care about the people who care about the game - so I guess, in a sense, I do care about hockey, after all. I care because others care. I care because I live in Canada, and Canada cares about hockey. I'm actually quite nervous about the game that is being played as I write this, Canada vs. the US in the semi-finals. I'm not watching it, because, other than the fact that I really don't know what's going on on the ice, I find the tension hard to handle. There are too many people to whom this matters so very much. As for the men's gold medal game on Sunday, I'll be sure to stay out of the pub. I might just stay off the internet, too, until it's over - just tell me who won afterwards, will you? If it's gold for Canada, I'll be very happy.

Canada is terribly passionate about hockey - my boys got to watch yesterday's women's gold medal game in school, one in math class, the other in the school theatre on the big screen while they were supposed to have gym class. I ask you, what other country would put their high school classes on hold so they could watch a sports game? Canucks have their priorities.

Life, the Universe, and Olympic Hockey. I guess I'm a hockey fan by proxy.

15 February 2014

Love

So it was Valentine's Day yesterday. E. L. Bates of StarDance Press just posted a really great little story about it, how she had hurt herself, and her husband just took over and did small, unromantic, utterly loving things for her (like wash the dishes). That, people, is love. Never mind the chocolates and roses - although they're all good in their place, too; I'm very fond of chocolates and roses. But nothing says "Love" like the washing machine that got fixed (again), or the flood from the burst pipe in the basement which is cleaned up without a murmur, even though it's 2:00 AM and the person in question is sick with a cold.

Valentine's Day is all fine and dandy. I love celebrations, they're wonderful. But I think for the most part this particular special day has totally got out of hand. I saw an ad on an online bookseller's website last week, adjuring the site visitors to surprise their Valentine with a $150 newly-released tablet-style ebook reader. Say what?

And then, someone else pointed out that Valentine's Day is the day of year which most hammers home the singleness of those who are NOT in a romantic relationship, or, conversely, reminds those who are in a less-than-glamorous one of just how unfulfilled they are. I remember some years ago a single woman going on a trip to Mexico, and stating that since she didn't have a husband to take her on those kinds of trips, she had to take herself. She seemed to feel that she was in need of an excuse for doing that. At that point I had been married for about ten years, and the number of times my husband had taken me on a trip to a resort in a tropical location was, umm, rather small - to be precise, nil. But that didn't impact the quality of our relationship in the slightest, and it still hasn't.

See, Valentine's Day seems to be above all an occasion for feeding completely unrealistic ideas of what "Love" is all about. If you haven't got a man who gives you flowers, chocolates, expensive ebook reader tablets, and takes you out to dinner in a fancy restaurant or on a trip to the tropics, you're obviously missing out, you poor thing. Yes, that's me, too; I've been missing out for decades now. I even had to buy my own ebook reader a few years ago, and it wasn't even on Valentine's Day.

You know what we did for Valentine's yesterday? We didn't go out for dinner, because our usual Friday-night-date-location, the local pub, was having some kind of Valentine's party going on. Too much fuss for our tastes. So we stayed home with the people we love - our kids - had homemade pizza (which is very loved around here) and chocolate cake with raspberries and ice cream (more love), and watched The Princess Bride. Oh so romantic. We didn't even talk about the movie afterwards, but I'm sure our marriage won't suffer for that omission. We spent plenty of time during the movie tearing it to pieces, though; it's such an eminently mockable film. Great fun.

Love isn't about flowers, chocolates and ebook readers. It's not even about the romantic, sexual relationship between two adults. Of course, that's a really important part of it, and it's a part that ought to be celebrated, shouted from the rooftops. But it's not what the sellers of ebook tablets and confectionery would have us believe. Love looks very different from those glittering stereotypes we are presented with in the media. Love is about people - husbands, wives, children, brothers, sisters, friends.

Do I like romance? You bet I do. Dyed-in-the-wool romantic, that's me. And I like flowers and chocolates and romantic movies and dinner dates, too ("Aaaas yooooou wiiiiiiish!"). Lovey-dovey mush is the best thing ever (I'm a total sucker for weddings, for one). But I know that when it comes down to it, what matters is doing the dishes for the other person, and fixing that dryer, and baking them a pizza because that's their favourite. And picking up your socks because they've told you that it irritates them when you leave them lying about. That's Love, and that's what we need to celebrate on Valentine's Day.

Life, the Universe, and Valentine's Day. Mine was lovely - how about yours?

09 February 2014

Fabulatherapy, Take Two

A friend on Facebook just posted a link to an article and little Youtube clip: "Movie-and-Talk: Can This Simple Exercise Help Save a Marriage?" In a word? Yes.

Researchers at the University of Rochester put married couples into different therapy groups. Two of the groups received more intensive, skills-based therapy (two different kinds), in one group the couples just watched relationship movies with each other and afterwards talked about them, and the control group did nothing. The study was carried out over three years, at the end of which the researchers found that the "do nothing" group had twice the divorce rate of the other three groups. But the exciting thing about this study is this: just watching movies together and talking about them was just as effective in keeping couples together as intensive, costly marriage counselling.

You see, it's yet another instance of Fabulatherapy, that word I coined  a year ago to describe how Story can help us deal with our lives. In that instance, it was dealing with bibliotherapy, reading books to help you cope with depression. Maybe this form of marriage therapy should be called cinematotherapy? Regardless, it's engaging with stories that makes the difference - Fabulatherapy.

The researcher who talks about this study on that Youtube clip speculates that it's not the movie-watching itself which makes the difference in couples' lives, but the talking about it afterwards. I beg to differ (somewhat). Watching a movie means to immerse oneself in the story. For the hour or two that you're watching, you ARE the person on screen, you experience what they experience, and you learn from it. In watching it with someone else, and talking about it afterwards, you synchronise your experience, and the learning that comes from it. Yes, the talking is important, but I think it's the movie itself that makes the greatest impact.

This is a beautiful example of the Power of Story (and one that's verified with fancy terminology, statistics, N=174, and a write-up in APA's PsycNET, no less). Fiction has incredible power over our lives. From personal experience, I can tell you that one of the biggest factors in the success of a marriage is to have witnessed the functional marriage of one's parents. When you have seen a marriage work, when you have experienced a couple who argues, does not always agree with each other, has weird quirks and irritating habits, and still stays together, reconciles after the arguments, and above and in spite of all deeply loves one another, you have an invaluable toolbox for making your own marriage work. (For the most part, on average. It's not an unfailing guarantee, of course, but it means you're quite far ahead of the game.) It's having experienced it, having seen it - that's what counts.

In daily life, we don't see how marriages work at home - I'm sure I'm not the only one who has been caught by complete surprise at the divorce of couples who, by all outer appearances, seemed to be doing perfectly well. We don't show our squabbles in public. So you have to be on the inside, so to speak, have to watch a couple in their home, in order to see how marriage really works. And the beauty of Story, of fiction, is that it allows us to go on the inside like that without having to intrude on our friends' privacy ("Hey, Joe and Martha, you seem to have a good marriage going. Do you mind if I park myself in your living room for the next month and listen to you when you're fighting, so I can learn how it's done? I promise to shut my eyes when you get too lovey-dovey." Uh, no. I don't think so.). We can watch a relationship, we can learn from others' mistakes and what they did right, just by popping a movie into the DVD player (or finding it on Netflix, more like) - just by engaging with a story. And that story, even if it is entirely fictional, can help us on our own lives, can teach us what we need to learn to make things work for ourselves.

Now I want to watch that movie with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney that they showed a clip of in that Youtube video. And there was one with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy that looked interesting, too. Or maybe I'll just go to my own DVD shelves - there is Shrek 2, all about making a new marriage work and making compromises for each other, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, about making a relationship work in the midst of a great big extended family, or...

Life, the Universe, and Movies for Marriage. Fabulatherapy at its finest.

06 February 2014

Borscht

In honour of the Russian Olympics, I thought I'd cook me a pot of borscht. Well, actually, no, it's not in honour of the Olympics at all, it's in honour of the fact that I found a borscht recipe I really like and I wanted some. I hadn't really ever made borscht before that one, as the man and most of the offspring wouldn't be into eating it; but I'm on a bit of a food emancipation kick - I want to try new stuff, particularly new vegetable dishes - so I made some. A friend who happened to come by that day ate a bowlful and declared it good borscht, and as she's of Ukrainian extraction, I feel this soup has received the stamp of approval.

The issue with making anything that involves beets is, of course, that it requires some pre-planning. You can't just stick your head in the fridge half an hour before you want to eat, and go "Oh, there's some beets, let's make something with them" - they take far too long to cook for that. However, cooking them is really easy, and they keep cooked in the fridge for quite some time, so you can pre-cook them one day, and do your spontaneous borschting later in the week. To cook, just wash them off, dump them in a big pot, cover with water, put them on to boil, and bubble-bubble-toil-and-trouble for about an hour (depending on how fat they are - I don't think you really can overcook beets, so better longer than shorter. Poke the biggest one with a sharp knife, and if the knife slides in easily, they're done.). Drain them, let them cool (I fill up the pot again with cold water just to cool them off, because I'm too impatient to wait for them to cool on their own), and peel them. Peeling beets is funny - when they're well-cooked, they slip right out of the skin, with sort of a sloosh kind of noise. I'd highly recommend wearing an apron and/or clothes you don't care that much about, as your hands and the sink and everything around it will look like a bloodbath (I suppose it is, too - beet blood. Muahahahah!).

Okay, now you've got your beets cooked. So here's the recipe (I got it from the More-With-Less Cookbook by Doris Janzen Longacre, which was the first cookbook I bought myself after I was married. If you can get a hold of that book, I highly recommend it. No, you can't have my copy; it's falling apart, anyway.)

Quick Beet Borsch (they spell it without the t. Apparently you can also spell it borshch, which is closer to the Ukrainian/Russian pronunciation. But it looks weird that way.)

1 c cabbage, finely chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 c water
cook 10 minutes. Add:
2 c stock or broth
2 medium beets, cooked and chopped
1/2 c beet juice (I leave that out)
1/2 t salt
dash pepper
1 T lemon juice.
bring to a boil, serve with sour cream.

Which is exactly what I'm going to do right now - serve it. Even if it's just to myself.

Life, the Universe, and Borscht. Do they have cookoffs in the Olympics?

26 January 2014

Understood by a Book

Love in Paris, on Amazon
Today I felt understood by a book. That's right - understood by a book, not "I understood a book" (although that, too, I hope). I got the email from the library yesterday that the ebook copy of Lunch in Paris I had put a hold on was available, so I downloaded it and started reading. I'd already read the first couple of chapters, which were available as a sample - whet-your-appetite-while-you-wait, that sort of thing - and really enjoyed it.

But the further I got into the book, the more I realised that it's not what I thought it was from those first few chapters. The full title is Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, and that's exactly what the beginning of the book reads like. Romance, and food. It's the story of how the author, Elizabeth Bard, a New Yorker, goes to Europe, falls in love with a Frenchman, moves to Paris, learns to shop at the market and cook French food, and lives happily ever after (well, for a given value of "happily ever after"). I was expecting a regular romance story - I've read enough of those to know how they're supposed to go: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl overcome obstacles to their being together, boy marries girl. The end.

As I said, the first few chapters start up quite promising in that regard - Elizabeth meets the tall-dark-and-handsome Frenchman Gwendal (yes, that's a guy's name; Breton, apparently); he takes her home from the café where they've eaten amazing food and then, after an amorous interlude, feeds her more amazing food (recipes included in the chapter); she goes back to London, where she is working, comes back to Paris every weekend for more amorous interludes (not described in detail; this is a G-rated book) and more amazing food; and you expect the rest of the book to be about how they eat and love their way to a proposal and a wedding with lots more deliciousness of the amorous and culinary kind.

But actually, there's a lot more to this book than that. Oh, the loving and eating (including recipes) is all there. But the wedding takes place just half-way through the book. The romantic happily-ever-after is not the denouement, it is, in a sense, only the beginning. What this book is really about is an American girl finding a new home in France, with a Frenchman. And quite apart from the language barrier - at the beginning of the story, Elizabeth barely speaks French; Gwendal's parents don't know any English - this is about making a cross-cultural marriage work. About being transplanted into a culture different from your own, and learning to live and function in it. And boy, do I know what she is talking about.

"I had one foot on either side of the ocean," she says, "and my knees were beginning to wobble" (chapter 18). Yes. That's exactly how it is. And with that foot on either side of the ocean comes an awareness which, I believe, you can only get from this in-between position, this neither-fish-nor-fowl existence that is entailed in being a cross-cultural transplant. You see both cultures, your original and your adopted home, through a different lens.

The interesting thing is that even though my situation is, in a sense, the exact reverse from Elizabeth Bard's - I'm German, living in Canada, married to a Canadian, she is American, living in France, married to a Frenchman - the issues are the same. Some of the cultural difference she points out are precisely the ones I've struggled with - still struggle with, in fact, after twenty-five years in this country.

Take the issue of "making friends". Americans (i.e. North Americans - Canadians are included in this) can meet someone, find them sympathetic, invite them over for coffee, and bingo, friendship is established. Europeans, Bard explains, don't do that. "I found that, for whatever reason, people in Europe don't need more friends," she says. "They have their families, the people they grew up with, the people they went to university with, colleagues to talk to on a cigarette break. Their social world is made up of tiny circles, closed but overlapping like those Chinese ring toys you can never untangle from one another. […] An English acquaintance was once drunk enough to explain it to me. We would have to meet at at least three events, he said, before I could even consider suggesting that we see each other outside a group context" (chapter 16). Yes! That's exactly how it is. I need to meet you repeatedly in a group setting before I can be friends with you. I'm still profoundly uncomfortable "going for coffee" with someone I don't already know really well, or "inviting them for coffee", for that matter. And it's very difficult getting out of your cultural skin.

But also, if you've chosen to live somewhere other than your culture of origin, you find yourself in a position of having to translate for those "back home". And believe me, it can get tedious. Bard talks about her mother bringing out the phrase "Why can't you just…" - do the things you would do "back home", the things that are "normal" (chapter 15). Because they're not normal here, that's why. There is an implied criticism in that "Why can't you just…" - a criticism of your home of choice, of the culture you are now a part of, to the tune of "Why do you choose to live in a place where people do these weird things?" And then you find yourself defending your new culture, even if perhaps you don't like whatever it is they're criticising, either.

And then there is the amazingly insightful passage about the flip side of the American dream. "Implicit in the American dream is the idea of self-determination. The result of our just-do-it attitude is that anything you don't do is your fault. This ethic of personal responsibility informs American attitudes on everything from obesity to college admissions to welfare reform" (chapter 19). And with it, Bard says, comes a fear of failure - because the American attitude is "You can do anything you want to do!", if you fail to do it, if you're not a successful person, it's your own fault. The can-do attitude that is so pervasive, and so refreshing, in American culture has its backlash.

My prime personal example of that is homeschooling: what is illegal, or at least uncommon, in Europe, namely educating your kids yourself, is perfectly possible here, which is wonderful. But if your kids are less-than-perfect in their academic performance and social development, guess whose fault that is? Oh yes. Self-determination has massive guilt trips built right into its system. I love the sense of personal freedom inherent in American culture, but I have also absorbed the guilt that comes with not making perfect use of that freedom to become a highly successful person on all fronts. One foot on either side of the ocean, and my knees are wobbling.

I knew most of those things Elizabeth Bard says - knew them in the back of my mind, but to have them articulated in this way struck such a chord. I found myself in her book - I was understood.

However, Lunch in Paris is still first and foremost a love story, with recipes. One novel-length tale of people and good food. And unlike some other books I've read, it is not a homily on the superiority of French eating habits over everyone else's (American ones in particular), but simply a celebration of the pleasure of French food. And of love, of course. I've come away from reading this inspired in so many ways.

And you know, I think I'll have to get me a hardcopy of this book for keeps, even just for the recipes. The local bookstore has a copy in stock, and what do you know, I still haven't spent the gift card I got from my friend for my birthday. I was saving it for something special, and this will fit the bill admirably.

Life, the Universe, and a Book that Understands Me. Love and good food are part of the deal.

21 January 2014

Jane and Valancy


image from wikipedia.org
I'm re-reading L. M. Montgomery's Jane of Lantern Hill. Yes, I do that - read fiction for fun, I mean, even though I already spend all day sitting on my rear end and reading for school. Bedtime reading is something I have to do; I can't go to sleep without engaging with a good story for a while first. It's a form of putting on mental pyjamas. So it's got to be something soothing - something that holds my interest, but not too exciting, else I'll not be able to put it down and/or will be tossing and turning all night because my adrenalin is pumping too hard. Just a good story that allows me to leave behind my everyday reality, and live someone else's life for a while - and I want to know that it's going to be a good life, not something terribly painful and upsetting. You don't put on your pyjamas if you think there might be burrs in them, do you? Neither do I.

So a nice re-read of a favourite book is a good choice for a bedtime story. And Jane of Lantern Hill is my most favourite of L. M. Montgomery's - well, Jane, and The Blue Castle. Oh, I love Anne of Green Gables, of course - who doesn't? - and Emily of New Moon is great, and so is The Story Girl and Kilmeny of the Orchard and so on and so forth. Montgomery was just good, that's all there's to it. But Jane and Blue Castle top them all, for me.

And it occurred to me this morning that that might just be because, underneath it all, they're really the same story. Even though Jane is eleven, and Valancy twenty-nine, they're very much alike - particularly in their situation at the beginning of the book. Both of them are capable people who are utterly unappreciated by their bullying families (particularly the mother in Valancy's case, the grandmother in Jane's). Through a circumstance they are snapped out of their downtrodden existence, they leave their repressive home and find a new family where they are appreciated, and a man to love. And that's the thing that struck me so forcibly today: those men, they're just the same person, and they're the reason I love these stories so much. I'm talking about Jane's dad, Andrew Stuart, and Valancy's husband, Barney Snaith. Both are successful writers, both are slightly (or, in Barney's case, very) bohemian, and both have just the same way of talking, the same sense of humour.

My guess is that Montgomery wrote herself a dream man - kind, witty, sensitive, handsome, a good provider, in need of a loving capable woman to mend his socks and make him shave every morning - wrote him twice, in fact, and Jane and Valancy, who are so very easy to identify with, get to be that woman who loves him and cares for him and is loved and cared for in return. Of course, in Jane's case it's her dearly beloved mother who is dad's wife, but it's Jane who is the caretaker of the family. She is the one who rescues her childlike mummy from grandmother's clutches, and she gives her prince (aka dad) back his most precious treasure (his wife); at the end of the story Jane is left with the bliss of taking care of both her parents at once. Jane takes the decisions in her own hands, makes things happen for the people she loves. And so does Valancy. Also, the pattern of their relationships is similar: both of them love their man from afar while they're still in captivity - Valancy harbours a secret crush on Barney just from having seen him drive through town, and Jane cuts out dad's picture from his byline in the paper, not knowing he's her father, because she finds the face so attractive - and once they're sprung free, they let their love have full reign.

image from wikipedia.org
Jane and Valancy are both about agency, women's agency. It's easy to dismiss Montgomery's stories as Edwardian fluff, demonstrations of women stuck in a patriarchal society who unfortunately find all their fulfilment in housewifely activities, serving a man. But if you look closer and take off  your twenty-first-century blinkers, you'll see that the books are deeply feminist. The downtrodden, disenfranchised girl, once she is forced out of the rut of powerlessness in which she is stuck (Valancy through her diagnosis, Jane through being sent to PEI), takes action, makes choices, and brings about a happily ever after for herself and her loved ones. Valancy and Jane are empowered to be who they want to be, and in reading their stories, the reader is too. That's feminism. And that's why I love those stories - Jane and Valancy, triumphant; the princess, through her own agency, gets her prince (Hero's Journey, anyone?). And he's a prince worth having. Happily ever after, the end. Aaaah.

Life, the Universe, Jane and Valancy. Always worth re-reading.