Sunday, 29 June 2014

Max Lucado's Cure for the Common Life

I just finished reading Max Lucado's book, which is supposed to help you start to figure out what your strengths are and what you were meant to do with your life. I checked it out of the library because - I admit it - I liked the cover, which has two Labradors snoozing on a couch (okay, it's a shallow reason -- but I do tend to judge books by their covers).

I did the exercises in the back of the book. This is a summary of the results:

"Verbs" I like to do: learning, reading, writing, teaching, walking, pretending, creating, envisioning (seeing what a thing could be)

Topics I enjoy: history, archaeology, animals, home renovation and restoration, antiques, gardening, self reliance, Aboriginal culture

Things that motivate me: solving mysteries, freedom of choice, flexible routine, the unusual and quirky, being the resource or receptacle of knowledge, working in isolation, and if I'm in a group I like to lead

"Sweet" moments from my childhood: acting out the stories in my head in the backyard, reading The Lord of the Rings on the roll-away bed in the carport with my siblings, walking through houses under construction, oil painting with my mom

"Sweet" moments from my adulthood: taking apart the upholstery on my couch and washing it (thus saving a whack of money), speaking to book clubs about my books, teaching Relief Society when the lesson goes well, planting out seedlings I've grown from seed, doodling floor plans and landscape designs

The idea is that you then take these things, search out the themes, and see what you are best at. I think my results show I am best at
  • envisioning
  • designing
  • creating, and then
  • helping others to see that vision.

So what jobs would be the right fit for me? Well, things that occurred to me that would appeal are:
  • taking old overgrown gardens and redesigning them, then bringing order out of chaos
  • Establishing community gardens. Except that doesn't pay.
  • writing screenplays
  • writing both informative articles and fiction stories
  • movie set design and build
  • restoring and repurposing old buildings
  • I like the idea of architecture but it sounds too technical. I want to be the "ideas guy" who doodles the initial concept. So maybe concept design?
  • Raising food for the food bank in my garden. Except that doesn't pay.
  • Somehow teaching fits into all of this too.
So there's me in a nutshell. Some of it I already knew or suspected, but some was eye-opening. And suddenly I understand better my driving need to check out real estate ads. It's all about the envisioning, the populating with stories, the fantasizing about what I could do with the place. Not necessarily about wanting to buy it.

How about you, my readers? (All two of you.) Go check out the book. I'd like to hear from you what your results show.

Meanwhile, I need to think about how I can incorporate more envisioning, designing, and creating in my current employment, which I can't let go of at the moment. I need to see my cubicle not as a sensory-deprivation tank, but as my own personal Parisian garret, or my design studio...

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Pick-Your-Own Strawberries

We're off to pick berries this morning. I'm sad to say the Fierri Brothers have closed their berry farms and the land is slated for development. However, Downey's Farm is still operating -- hooray! -- and they have strawberries.

Every year we like to fill our freezer with about 70 litres of berries to use in milkshakes, icy lemonade, and of course strawberry shortcake. This year I have a big crop of rhubarb, too, so no doubt there will be pies. And don't forget jam. Nature is kind to give us such an abundant source of vitamin C first thing in the spring after a harsh winter.

Have you noticed that the pairings that taste best are of things that ripen at the same time? Strawberries and rhubarb. Basil and tomatoes. Dill and cucumbers. Squash and pecans. Corn and beans. Of course, it's probably just that we like those combinations because they ripen together, and so traditionally our ancestors ate them together and we got used to the combinations. Now with people eating anything anytime from anywhere in the world, you can have unlimited combinations of foods. But I think the traditional, naturally-occurring ones are my favourite. You can't beat a good strawberry-rhubarb pie.

Thursday, 26 June 2014


Eight hours of crazy typing later....drum roll...the manuscript has been sent off. Ahead of schedule. How about that? I've put the baby in the basket and set him loose on the River Nile. We'll see if he gets eaten by crocodiles or hitches a ride with Pharaoh's daughter.

I almost don't care what happens to it; it's launched. That's all that matters. I'm off to the garden to pick greens for supper's salad, with the giddy feeling of a child sneaking out of class early.

Except...not today

All that about bounding through the grass and playing in the garden? Can't today. My manuscript is due at the publisher's next week and it's only half finished. So today will be spent chained to the desk, typing feverishly and trying to ignore the blue sky calling outside the window.

Writing used to come naturally to me, and it used to be one of my chief joys. When I was thirteen or fourteen, I'd spend hours every day sitting cross-legged in front of my blue electric typewriter on the floor, madly pounding out story after story. Now, it seems there's always a thousand other things clamouring for my attention, a lot of them also chief joys, and I never get more than a fifteen-minute stretch to write in. It makes for disjointed thinking. The words don't flow, and I find myself tidying up other things before taking the time to sit and write. I face a blank laptop screen and suddenly it seems very important to go check for the mail, or to make cookies, or to do laundry, or to...ahem...update my blog. Anything to avoid the moment of truth when I have to dive into that blank screen and dredge up something worthwhile.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

"Today While the Blossom Still Clings to the Vine..."

Today at work I complimented someone on her sandals. She replied, "I have to wear them now, because it's only 2 1/2 months until winter." And every fiber of my inner being wailed, "Nooooooo! Don't say things like that!" I can't possibly survive another winter like the last one.

I won't let it get me down. I refuse to let winter hold my summer hostage. There is such a thing as looking too far ahead. Time enough to deal with dark and cold and wind and snow. Right now, I will suck up every little bit of sunshine, warmth, and joy that I can. I will dig my fingers into the crumbly garden soil, relish the sight of Brio bounding toward me across the grass, and soak in the singing of birds before dawn.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Quick Dessert and Sorta Healthy

I came across a new quick snack that's theoretically full of protein. Mix 1 cup oatmeal, 1/2 c. carob or chocolate chips (I prefer carob, believe it or not), 1/2 c. smooth peanut butter, 1/2 c. ground golden flax, 1/3 c. corn syrup, and 1 t. vanilla. Form into walnut-sized balls and roll in coconut, set on a sheet of waxed paper. These are sweet and maybe there's a way to cut down on the corn syrup and still have them stick together. Other than that I think they're fairly healthy. And they're yummy, which is the key thing.

I watch some of the people at work (I call them the Yoga Set), hunched miserably over their drab lettuce in the lunchroom, and I am convinced that there is more to life than trying to prolong it. They might be slim and fit, but they don't look enthusiastic. I am fat and happy with my container of leftover pasta and my homemade lavender cookies. I'm also convinced that being happy will extend your life more than jogging will.

It's food for thought.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

My Opinion of Audio Books

I finally got around to listening to part of the audio book of my latest novel. And lasted about a chapter before I turned it off. My instant negative reaction surprised me, because I've listened to quite a lot of audio books in the past and enjoyed them. I found them especially enjoyable when I was off on maternity leave; I could conveniently listen to a book while nursing or while my hands were otherwise occupied. So I assumed I'd like hearing my own book.

But I didn't. It immediately grated against my ears, which surprised me. The person reading the story did a great job. She pronounced things correctly. She had a pleasant voice and a dramatic flair. I couldn't understand why I disliked it...but now I've finally figured it out. I don't know about other writers, but when I write, I hear a voice in my head telling the story. Basically I'm just there to take dictation. And that voice sounds like me. People don't generally like to hear recordings of their own voices, because it sounds different from what you hear when you speak. But to hear someone else entirely read the story in a voice different from the one I'm used to hearing in my head...emphasizing things slightly differently, in a different timbre and pitch...that really struck me as weird. And unpleasant. It didn't match the way I had first heard the story, when it was being created.

Isn't that strange? I never knew it about myself, but I must have a deep-seated belief that the story---in order to be true to the original---needs to be told in my voice. Not my recorded voice, but the voice I hear in my head. Which can't be captured. So it's doomed either way.

I wonder if this same feeling underlies the knee-jerk reaction I feel when my editor twiddles with my wording or switches parts of the story around. They might be perfectly valid alterations and probably make the story better, but they aren't true to what the voice told me. I totally relate to Cyrano de Bergerac's assertion that no one should change so much as a comma of his writing.

Or maybe writers are just a bit schizophrenic. We must do what the voices tell us!

Monday, 16 June 2014

It Just Gets Better and Better

So today I learned Non ho suonato il piano sulla spiaggia and Non ho comprato una scimmia per mio fratello. Which mean "I didn't play the piano on the beach" and "I didn't buy a monkey for my brother," respectively.

I'm dying to try these out on Sister Giuliani when we get there.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Happy Father's Day to the Men in My Life

I had the greatest dad growing up. All morning my thoughts have been filled with great memories of him:
  • riding in the metal basket on the back of his bike
  • sledding with him on the steep slope where Timpview Highschool now stands
  • watching him build clever carrying cages so I could take various pets to Show-and-Tell
  • watching him till the garden with a big one-wheeled cultivator, plotting out the vegetables mathematically
  • listening to him whistle under his breath and click his tongue as he thought (and he was a powerful thinker)
  • watching him carve a bar of soap into a tiny cage with two balls rattling inside it
  • listening to him play the harmonica, piano, and guitar (sometimes two simultaneously)
  • coming downstairs on a Saturday morning to find classical music on the radio and Dad making waffles in the kitchen
  • Dad helping me with my math homework, always patient even when I bawled and whined
  • seeing my dad dance my mom around the kitchen (they were practicing the Salty Dog Rag for a show)
  • watching him crank the wooden-handled hand mixer when Mom was making bread
  • paddling hard in the front of the canoe, only to turn around and find Dad not paddling, because he'd gotten caught up in observing some wild bird
  • the time Dad compared me to the pear tree growing outside my bedroom window, strong in the sunlight
  • people bringing us a fruit basket at Christmas because my dad was the Bishop (and for the first time getting an inkling that other people thought my dad was special too).
Now Dad is in England with Mom, serving the Lord on a one-year mission. This is their second mission, the first being in Hungary, and I am continually impressed with their adaptability, humility, and willingness to serve. And not many people would try to tackle learning Hungarian in their 70s! Dad is the type of person who is always curious about the world and eager to learn new things.

When I married I purposely looked for a husband who was a lot like my dad. I wanted someone who could use both his hands and his head, who valued education, someone patient and gentle and devout. And I found such a person. And made him go be interviewed by my dad before I'd agree to marry him. They both survived the event, which told me I was on the right track.

Now I see my son raising his little girl, and I see the same sweetness and gentleness, the same willingness to work hard and do whatever it takes to care for the child entrusted to him. She is building her own memories of her dad, and I believe they will be as treasured as mine.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Capisco ma non parlo molto bene

I've been working my way through an Italian grammar book in preparation for our trip to Italy in July. And I am astounded by the inane sentences they use to demonstrate points of grammar. "The goose is white." "The head is a part of the body." "I smell with my nose." "I don't swim in the bathtub." Now there is a useful sentence I'm sure I'll use a lot.

When I was studying Welsh, the nationalist instructor taught us such gems as "On Saturday we burn down the English holiday homes" and "Maggie Thatcher eats children for breakfast."

The problem is that when you learn a few stock phrases and can pronounce them well, people will respond to you in that language and expect you to understand them. If I learned how to say some useful conversational piece, such as Practica la cornamusa a casa? ("Do you practise your bagpipes at home?") with my luck the person would reply with a long paragraph in rapid-fire Italian and I wouldn't catch a word of it. A friend told me her brother learned just enough of each language to be able to say "Yes, I am the airport." He says it cheerfully at all opportunities, and people understand that he does not speak the language and adjust accordingly. I think it's brilliant.

So how do I say "airport" in Italian?

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Life Lived with Brio

Okay, so you’re probably getting tired of hearing about my dog. But really, he takes up so much of my life, and I’m sure my kids (who take up most of the rest of it) wouldn’t like me to write about them, so you’re stuck with hearing about the dog. It's that or the garden, and right now the garden is drowning in rain, so dog it is.
Brio's name was suggested by Son Number Two. It's Italian and means "zest for life, energy, enthusiasm." Son Number Two had no idea how prophetic he was being when he suggested that name. But I'm finding Brio's name providential on an unexpected level.
I've written before about how Brio has taught me something about being Zen and in the moment. That experience caused me to make one of my new year’s resolutions be to watch for opportunities for Brio to teach me. There’s a lot I can learn from him, beyond the obvious things most puppies teach you: patience, endurance, discipline, the benefits of daily exercise… But he can also teach me sheer exuberance in living.
Brio doesn’t do things by halves. When he’s happy, he’s deliriously joyous, his whole body wriggling with excitement, and he greets you at the door after work as if you’re just returning from a year away in Africa. He radiates love. When he knows he has done something wrong, he slinks to the floor with his ears drooping backward as if you’ve just whipped him with barbed chains, even though you haven’t even raised your voice. When he plays, he throws himself into it with no reservations, leaping into the air to catch the ball, and skidding to such abrupt halts that he sometimes literally turns somersaults. Even as a puppy he showed no fear, hurtling himself with abandon from couch to coffee table and invariably crashing and tumbling to the floor. I'm amazed he never broke a rib. When he relaxes, he is boneless, spread in deep contentment over the cushion like a pool of amber syrup. When I rub his tummy, he squirms and twists into impossible shapes with a big grin on his face and his tongue dangling clownishly out the side of his mouth, the caricature of tickle. If he could giggle, he would. I think God did dogs a disservice in withholding laughter from them, but Brio certainly tries to laugh anyway. And when Brio is feeling tender, he presses himself against your legs and gazes up at you in adoration and you are caught in those laser-beam eyes, and you feel like the best-loved and most worthy human on the planet.

I need to be more like my dog. How often do I hold myself back from fully experiencing the moment because of self-consciousness? How often do I talk myself out of intense feeling because of fear? Why do I tell myself the joy can't last so it's better not to get too into it? Am I the only person who does this? I think a part of me is afraid to love too much because someday I know I will be disappointed or bereft. But isn't that all the more reason to sink myself into the joy of now? To savour it while I've got it? Yes, I will undoubtedly experience loss down the road. But will holding back now make the loss any less deep later? Isn't it better to fully experience the love now, suck up every drop of it I can while I have the chance, and deal with the loss when it comes? Otherwise the whole journey is about loss, anticipated or real, and I will have missed out on what joy I could have had. I want to be able to look back on my life and know that I have loved fully and well, lived deeply, experienced intensely, and expanded my heart.

I think this is what Brio can teach me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Brio has Turned a Corner

I've often blogged about my dog Brio, this high-energy, playful handful that has proven to be much more of a challenge than any other dog I've ever had. Well, I think we've reached a milestone, and I'm pleased to report I can see a glimmer of the wonderful adult dog he is going to become.

Every day after work I walk the dogs to the park for about half an hour of playing fetch. Maple stands stolidly on the end of his leash and refuses to watch, much less participate. His only interest is trying to get away from me so he can roll in the cockleburrs at the edge of the woods, and he consistently ignores the sound of his own name, so he isn't trusted off-leash. The walk to the park and back is about all this elderly dog can manage, and he's generally panting hard and trying to lie down in the patches of shade we pass by the time we get home.

Brio, on the other hand, obeys pretty well and needs much more exercise than I can give him by walking, so he has been trusted off the leash at an early age. He will play fetch forever, and if I've forgotten his ball, he will bring me sticks and rocks and bits of garbage to throw instead, tossing it on my feet and looking at me hopefully until I get the point. As soon as the park comes into sight, he starts looking at me to watch for the ball to come out. As soon as I say the word, "Ready?" he whips around and stares at me intently, poised to run. He's a handsome fellow and very friendly, so he tends to get a lot of attention from the people we meet in the park. He's always keen to join other dogs for a romp or to get in the middle of someone else's game. And up until now, that has made him distractable and bouncy.

Well, now that good weather is here, when I've taken him to the park we've been disappointed to find baseball games and soccer games going on. Lots of people and noise and balls flying around. I've taken him to a far corner and nervously let him off the leash...and he's been all-eyes-on-Mom, waiting for me to throw his ball. He completely ignores the distractions, doesn't even notice the other kids and dogs going by, and plays fetch devotedly with me. When he brings the ball back to me, he has developed the habit of tossing it at my feet and then backing away, eyes on the ball, just squirming with energy waiting to explode as soon as I pick up the ball.

The last two days I have moved closer to the action, not seeking out distant remote corners of the park but staying near our usual place centre-field, in spite of the ball games going on around us. And he has remained intently focused, with eyes for nothing but me and the ball. When a particular dog goes by that he has played with, he glances at it and returns to task, without the slightest break in concentration. Well! I've never seen anything like it. Yesterday he even ignored the high-speed remote-control car a boy was sending zipping past on the path, back and forth. Even I thought it looked fun to chase. But Brio only gave it a glance and then was back to his game. We've definitely gained a new control and discipline in the last few days, and I don't know where it has come from. Certainly not from me. I'm the one distracted by squirrels and flying frisbees.

I think this dog needs to be one of those "Super Dogs." Or a police dog. Or in movies. He loves having something to do, and I have never seen such concentration ever, in person or animal. It's almost freaky, the way he stares into my eyes, willing me to read his mind, as if he's trying to send telepathic messages. That much eye contact is a bit unnerving; we humans don't tend to make eye contact all that often, really, and when you lock gazes with Brio, you are filled with the sure knowledge that you have encountered and connected with a being more intelligent than you.

Friday, 6 June 2014

In Which We Turn 47

It's a truly beautiful spring day, all pearl sky and light breeze, the type of day when it seems sinful to have to work indoors. Surely they should let us out on a day like this. We get so few of them here! We shouldn't be stuffed in our veal-pen cubicles; we should be out walking beside a river, flying kites, digging in the garden. It's especially so today, because it's my birthday, and I have an intense desire to go hiking and have a picnic. Ah well!

I remember when I got my first fulltime job, and I was shocked to find out I was expected to work through the summer. What, you mean this is all year? You never shut down? I was so used to being a student with summers off; it had never occurred to me that I was going to be expected to work year-round. 'Til five o'clock! Preposterous!

I will say, though, that I really get my money's worth out of every minute of vacation time now, because I know how precious it is. When I have a day off, I can walk the dogs, work in the garden, bake bread, clean house, do laundry, and read a good portion of a book by 7 a.m. Every second is packed with utter enjoyment. I'm not sure if I would enjoy "down time" that intensely if I had lots of it. Working makes me appreciate the times I'm not working. What would I be like if I had every day off? It probably wouldn't be pretty. I'd wallow in books and baking and playing with my puppies and not accomplish much at all.

I'd like to try it.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Differences in Perception

At work the other day, one of my colleagues was complaining about how rude people are in the city. They don't queue up right, they don't let others cut into traffic, they rip you off at every opportunity...

I was taken aback. I have found the opposite to be true. Canadians - including Torontonians! - always seem quite polite to me. I'm almost always waved into the traffic lane during rush hour. Several times a day I hear teenage boys (teenagers, mind you!) call out a thank you to the driver as they get off the bus. I always see people jump to their feet to offer others a seat on the subway, and I can't tell you how many people I've seen guide a visually-impaired man with a cane onto the train and help him find a seat. They strike up conversations at crowded bus stops. They help others up staircases with their luggage.

I just assume people are going to be friendly, and they usually are. And maybe that's where my experience differs from my colleague's. I find people almost always do what you expect of them, and you tend to find what you look for. Maybe the colleague anticipates rudeness and so she enters situations already defensive and stiff. And then that attitude causes people to react accordingly. I think I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt and expect friendliness, so that is what I encounter.

I do remember once in the subway a woman pushing past up the stairs, and when she accidentally bumped into a woman with her elbow, the woman instantly snarled and cursed at her. I remember thinking "Is that how thin your veneer of civility is? Is that all it takes to set you off? And how can you already be that grouchy this early in the day?"

On the other hand, expecting the best of people can sometimes blind you to their true natures. I was friends with someone for years and thought well of him...and probably ignored the signs of narcissism that were there...and overlooked the small rudenesses and snappishness because I figured he was having a bad day or something. But when it came down to brass tacks, his mask slipped, the gloves came off, and he revealed himself for the self-centred, amoral, and downright nasty person that he really was. And I was completely surprised, and part of me felt betrayed, as if he had duped me for all these years. Maybe I shouldn't be so gullible. Maybe I'm naive. Maybe I should be more skeptical and cynical...

But you find what you're looking for. And I don't want to live in a skeptical and grumpy world. I would rather expect the best from people and risk having the occasional disappointment. I think it's a much happier way to live.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Happy Accident

In our kitchen cupboard, we keep a mason jar of matzo meal with seasonings (sage, oregano, parsley, paprika, salt) which we use to bread chicken and pork chops. The other night I wanted to make baked chicken, and I rolled the meat in the matzo mix as usual. But it came out tasting different, and I discovered I had accidentally rolled the chicken in falafel mix instead! But it turned out great, and my son said he preferred it to the usual breading. The ground chick peas gave it a nice crunch, too. So I'll make it that way from now on.  Not all mistakes turn out so well (there was that time I made cornbread with malt-o-meal instead of cornmeal...) but this one had a pleasant result.

Monday, 2 June 2014


The first rhubarb cobbler of the season! Life is good again.