Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Rear window

Life is hectic. My surroundings continue to look like the aftermath of some terrible disaster. There is little evidence of my physical busy-ness, and were you to peer inside my head you would wonder also about the success of my grinding mental efforts in the chaos that is currently my brain. I feel lost without my daily blogging fix.

With both J-F and I busy with work and toddler-minding, after meals and laundry — the regular crap of daily life — there's little time or energy to contend with the "extra" work of unpacking and settling in. We, each of us on our own schedules, have occasional bursts of fed-up-edness — in this manner the kitchen has been made functional (though some drawers with less organization than I hope to someday achieve), the storage area and hall closet are orderly such that one can maneouvre and access stuff, boxes have been emptied, and additional shelving has been assembled. (Yes, the dishwasher was installed successfully, by J-F himself.)

My sister flew through town this weekend. A couple hours here, a few there — we spent what time we could together. Her efforts to buy me an extravagant housewarming present were unsuccessful, though the fruitless shopping did result in fresh air — a success in itself — and an envisioning of the day our space could stylishly accommodate expensive furniture.

We are experiencing our first homeownership setback. The shower and toilet are not draining, for no discernible reason. We know nothing of plumbing. Perhaps it has something to do with the ongoing exterior work, or the recent rain. The contractor will be investigating later today, but we can't help but feel a little discouraged.

I've been feeling a bit bummed — a little blue, unsettled, disappointed, confused — ever since reading Petite Anglaise's news last week. I've been reading her blog for a about half a year and came to think of her a little as a kindred spirit — both of us shacked up with Frenchmen in a "foreign" city, toddler in tow, with similiar outlooks on child-rearing and career, love and life.

I'm unsettled now much like I was when watching the final episode of Mad About You. And unsettled more by the fact that I feel unsettled at all.

When you see yourselves in other people, and they don't turn out well, or as well as you'd hoped, or anything like what you hope for yourselves... It scares me a little. Not in any real way, but it reminds me that love isn't easy, that even after almost nine years this relationship isn't easy.

Strangers — virtual and fictional and the ones next door — are windows into ourselves. But we are not them.

So here we are.

The courtyard of this condoplex is nearing completion. Through sliding doors we watch our neighbours' lives, assembling patio sets, planting geraniums, installing curtains, working, studying, sharing meals. We are the last to move in, and as such I feel we are on display in the full glory of our disorganization and frustration — they're window onto us is fuller.

Our neighbours are mostly couples, on average a few years younger than us. One couple has a baby, another I think is expecting, another is gay. There's a cat across the way, and a couple dogs upstairs (two cats beside me).

As we exit the other morning, we surprise an older, distinguished-looking gentleman in his bathrobe scooting down to the main entrance to get his newspaper. We've seen him on television, representing the police or fire department. (No more pot-smoking on the balcony.)

I'm struck by what attractive people live here, how good-looking everyone is. I wonder if this plex is a beacon for a certain "type." I hope it's something in the water.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Remembrance of books past

I've never read anything by Michael Chabon, except for this essay, just now, which not only makes me want to read his books, it makes me want to write a novel. (Oh, wait — I did glance at his website once.)

Chabon also experienced a Calvino effect, citing him and a few others as authors "who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma." He writes about embarking on the writing of his first novel with the realization that it was not according to "the plan to do for romantic relationships what Calvino had done for the urbis in Invisible Cities."

Chabon's essay is in fact not at all about Calvino. It's about writing, the reading that informs writing, the desire to write.
...when I read a page of Remembrance of Things Past (as it was then known), the book that was my project for the year, I felt all those interests mesh with the teeth of Grammar and Style, and I would imagine myself, spasmodically, a writer.

It's also about summer and place.
I started to write my first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, in April of 1985, in Ralph's room. Ralph was the Christian name of a man I never met, the previous owner of my mother's house on Colton Boulevard, in the Montclair District of Oakland, California. His so-called room was in fact a crawl space, twice as long as it was wide, and it was not very wide. It had a cement floor and a naked light bulb. It smelled like dirt, though not in a bad way—like soil, and cold dust, and bicycle grease. Most people would have used it for suitcases and tire chains and the lawn darts set, but at some point this Ralph had built himself a big, high, bulky workbench in there. He built it of plywood and four-by-fours, with a surface that came level to the waist of a tall man standing. It might have been a fine workbench, but it made a lousy desk, which is how I used it.

Umberto Eco talks about everything (including The DaVinci Code), and a little bit about The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. (I must make haste to a bookstore!)
"I had to fight against Proust in this book. If you write a novel about memory, you have to. So I did the contrary of the great Proust. He went inside himself to retrieve senses, smells and memories. My hero does the opposite because he is only confronted with the external memories, public memories which a whole generation shared."

The importance of Proust
Author Lauren Baratz-Logsted talks about her impulse to read,
It amazes me how often, when I ask a would-be published author what they're reading at the time, the response comes back: "Nothing. I don't have much time for reading." To me, this is like saying, "I want to be a brain surgeon, but I really don't have time for med school." A.O. Scott, reviewing Joyce Carol Oates' Uncensored: Views and (Re)views in the NYTBR on April 17, wrote, "Of course, every serious writer of fiction must also be a serious reader; the only way the art can really be mastered is through a compulsive, self-administered pedagogy of worship, derision, imitation and intimidation."

(Among her standout reads this year: Arturo Perez-Reverte's Queen of the South.)

The dream

Iain Pears' The Dream of Scipio will stay with me a very long time.

I started reading this book months ago. Previously, I quoted this bit:

Was Julien a mere bookworm? Or was he sensitive to the outside world, could he absorb time and place, feel history in the stones and use this to make his work more sensitive and more subtle? Are you a mere pedant, Monsieur? Or do you have the spark of vitality inside you? Will you do something with your life? Answer my question with all the wit at your disposal and let us see.

Because I've been reading this over such a long time, it has read very much like a dream. I've lost the details, but the mood lingers. Bits of it come back to me when I'm otherwise engaged, taking me on journeys to investigate my motivation, my actions, my inaction.

The dream of the title is a reference to a classical text. From the New York Times review:
In his essay "De Republica," Cicero digressed to tell the story of the great general Scipio, and the dream he had of being taken up into the heavens to meet his ancestor Africanus, who shows him the machinery of the cosmos and teaches him a lesson about the vanity of fame and the necessity of virtue. This digression is missing from the manuscripts of Cicero's essay that have come down to us; it was preserved only in a long commentary by the Neoplatonic thinker Macrobius, which circulated in several manuscripts in the Middle Ages.

It is appropriate then that the novel is full of philosophical digressions, and that I digressed while reading it. The vanity of fame and the necessity of virtue. Pears does not deign to teach his readers a lesson, nor do his characters much learn one, but every digression leads the reader deeper into her won soul.

According to The Guardian, The Dream is "a lengthy meditation on cultural history, with characters as pegs for thoughts. The plot has more in common with an academic treatise than with a thriller." Which is just fine by me.

The characters: three men at three different critical moments of Western civilization, linked by some writings and by geography, interwoven in such a way as to invite comparison and the drawing of parallels. Each of these men's stories revolve about a woman from whom they have much to learn.

From a review in The Washington Post:
Pears does not tell these stories in sequence, but rather weaves from one to the next, a risky strategy for the storyteller and, initially, a demanding one for the reader. But both risk and effort prove worthwhile, for this structure allows the echoes and resonances of each to build into an entirely satisfying symphony of story and substance.

Although Pears' 1998 novel An Instance of the Fingerpost was a critical and popular success, to me it seemed a flabby book, bloated on its own mannered cleverness. In The Dream of Scipio, Pears has abandoned cleverness for wisdom, paring his style to a cool elegance that allows some very large ideas the room they need to breathe.

I read An Instance a couple summers ago. The idea of the structure was clever — the story retold form the perspectives of four different narrators — but after one and a half tellings, the story bored me. The murder mystery became mired in political details, and so my focus wandered and waned.

The Dream of Scipio follows the path of an intellectual's life in Vichy-run France and his investigation into a poet's writings during the time of the Black Death, framed by the writings of a bishop witness to the collapse of the Roman Empire. They consort with painters, philosophers and rabbis, government and church officials. Art, love, religion. Following are some of the passages that gave me pause.

Critique of Julia's painting (p 121–2):
"You've looked at too many pictures, you know too much. You are too aware of what you're doing and of the past. That's what's wrong with it."
"You have Matisse and Cézanne and a bit of Puvis there. A touch of Robert, perhaps, as well. I look at that picture and I can see what you've built it out of. That's what's wrong."
"It's the painting of a dutiful daughter," he said eventually, looking at her cautiously to see her reaction. "You want to please. You are always aware of what the person looking at this picture will think of it. Because of that you've missed something important."

The soul dies (p 153):
The phrase of Manlius which led Olivier to the rabbi was at least a considered one, and one of the greatest importance. Indeed, it was at the summation of nearly eight hundred years of thought on the relationship which must exist between the physical and the metaphysical. The soul dies when it falls to earth. More Christian heresies were contained in this statement than in almost anything else in the entire document. It contradicted the idea that the soul is created ex nihilo — at birth, at quickening or at conception, a question never precisely answered. It contradicted the idea that man is born and dies once only; it contradicted the idea that salvation lies through God alone; indeed it suggests that man is responsible for his own salvation, but through knowledge, not through deeds or faith. The idea that birth is death, and death is life again hardly sat easily with contemporary Christian doctrine, although it echoed all too readily with the heresies of the Cathars.

The blanket over men's minds (p 154):
It was a duty, not a labour of love, that made her teach, for she could not but be aware that each newcomer to her door, however curious, knew less than the one he replaced. The ability to argue diminished; the grasp of basic concepts weakened; and the knowledge that comes from study grew perpetually less. Christianity, which spread over men's minds like a blanket, put faith above reason; increasingly those brought up under its influence scorned knowledge and thought. Even those with a spark given to them by the gods wanted to be told, rather than wanted to think. Getting to accept that the goal was thought itself, not any conclusion at the end of thought, was hard indeed. They came to her for answers; all they got instead was questions.

In the cause of virtue (p 254–5):
And so Julien judged Olivier de Noyen harshly and without pity. He even referred back to Manlius and the example he set, using the test of The Dream of Scipio as the link; for Olivier knew Manlius's words, but had utterly failed to comprehend them, it seemed. "no one can possess wisdom if consumed by intemperance", says Manlius, quoting the Protagoras, yet Olivier's actions were surely intemperate. Another statement, this time derived from Cicero, also gave him comfort, for the wisest of all Romans stated that "you cannot act rightly by taking up arms against your father or your fatherland". Was that not what Olivier had done? For in that age without countries, Cardinal Ceccani was both father and fatherland to Olivier, and he had turned against both. Julien's own position was the more clear, surely?
It is significant, however, that Julien did not ponder the next passage from Manlius's manuscript until much later, for it might have brought with it further reflection. He had noted it years before in the Vatican library, correctly ascribed its origins to Theophrastus, then filed it away. "An amount of disgrace or infamy can be incurred", Manlius quoted, "if it is in the cause of virtue."
Had Julien been less influenced by his own predicament, then he might have looked harder and guessed the poet's motivations earlier than he did. He might also have considered the possibility that Manlius, in writing these words, was passing a verdict on his own acts, rather than providing a philosophical basis for them.

Are we fated or not? (p 267):
The question is a false one, for the concern of man is not his future but his present, not the world but his soul. We must be just, we must strive, we must engage ourselves with the business of the world for our own sake, because through that, and through contemplation in equal measure, our soul is purified and brought closer to the divine. There is no reward for good behavior, as the Christians suppose, no judge to decide. The more nearly our soul resembles the divine, the closer it is able to approach the model from which it was formed and which it ceased resembling when it became tainted by the material on falling to earth. Thought and deed conjoined are crucial. Faith means nothing, for we are too corrupted to apprehend the truth.
The attempt must be made; the outcome is irrelevant. Tight action is a pale material reflection of the divine, but reflection it is, nonetheless. Define your goal and exert reason to accomplish it by virtuous action; success or failure is secondary. The good man, the philosopher — the terms to Manlius were the same — would strive to act rightly and discount the opinion of the world. Only other philosophers could judge a philosopher, for only they can grasp what lies beyond the world.

"Can there be no good man?" (p 269–70):
"Action is the activity of the rational soul, which abhors irrationality and must combat it or be corrupted by it. When it sees the irrationality of others, it must seek to correct it, and can do this either by teaching or engaging in public affairs itself, correcting through its practice. And the purpose of action is to enable philosophy to continue, for if men are reduced to the material alone they become no more than beasts." ... Only a man who realised that civilisation might not continue could have reformulated classical ideas in such a way...

In the paragraphs that follow it is made clear that "as a piece of philosophy, it was not of the highest order." Here, the thoughts become pegs for the characters.

I should mention that in each of the three eras, Jews are being persecuted. Although in some ways this is incidental, it serves to make the climactic point (p 370–1).
They may be mad, but they're not fools. What they're doing goes far beyond the war. Something unparalleled in human history. The ultimate achievement of civilisation. Just think about it. How do you annihilate so many people? You need contributions from so many quarters. Scientists to prove Jews are inferior; theologians to provide the moral tone. Industrialists to build the trains and the camps. Technicians to design the guns. Administrators to solve the vast problems of identifying and moving so many people. Writers and artists to make sure nobody notices or cares. Hundreds of years spent honing skills and developing techniques have been necessary before such a thing can even be imagined, let alone put into effect. And now is the moment. Now is the time for all the skills of civilisation to put to use.
"Can you imagine a greater, a more enduring achievement? This will last forever, and cannot be undone. Whatever benefits we bring to mankind in the future, we killed the Jews. No matter how great the advances of medicine, we killed them. However high our achievements may soar, however perfect we become, this is what is at our heart. We killed them all; not by accident, or in a fit of passion. We did it deliberately, and after centuries of preparation."

I think these passages speak for themselves. It is simplistic philosophy, critique, examination; but these digressions feed the characters with motive and rationale (right or wrong) and give the reader the example of their lives as a framework for self-reflection.

Reading group guide.

Iain Pears' The Portrait has just been released.
The Washington Post:
We are in for much more than a mortal reckoning between artist and critic (though we get that, too). This is a novel of pitiless revenge. ("A critic is to a painter as a eunuch is to a man.")

A final word on The Dream's geography, which connects its characters, all walking the same stones of Avignon (p 261):
Even for the atheist and the rationalist, there are places in the world which are special, for no reason that can be easily explained. The footsteps slow, the voice lowers and speaks more softly, an air of peace works its way into the soul. Each individual has his own place, it is true; what is holy to one will not be so necessarily to another, although the reverberations of some are all but universal.

Outside the papal palace. Posted by Hello

I spent a week in Avignon in 1995. Reading The Dream makes me want to go back.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Please excuse the mess

I'm settling into our new condo (opening boxes and finding place for stuff anyway), and I was suddenly overcome by the urge to clean up and redo my blog home as well.

This may take a while.

Long live Molvania

Zlad's latest tune has been disqualified from Eurovision for Satanism.
Like a lion kills an antelope.
Like a hammer hits a canteloupe.
I am the anti-Pope.

(Remember Zlad?)

Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry — recommended here.

(What a great series of travel books!)

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Invisible effects

A collection of links to works inspired by the writings of Italo Calvino, particularly Invisible Cities (via Bookninja):
What makes up a city is not so much its physical structure but the impression it imparts upon its visitors, the way its inhabitants move within, something unseen that hums between the cracks.

Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand up to comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead of racking one's brain to suggest with the ivory pieces' scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion, it would suffice to play a game according to the rules, and to consider each successive state of the board as one of the countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.

"The Calvino Effect" in my life:
  • In grade 7 I produced a series of reports ("future scenarios")with conceptual cover art — a city, always the same city, but retold. I was not yet familiar with the work of Calvino, but it's evident my mind was already open to him.
  • My discovery of Calvino via a radio reading of If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (I was maybe 15) opened up for me a new path through life.
  • An attempted visit, failed, to the town of Malbork.
  • My cat, Calvino.

Around the house

I did it. I read — and finished — a book. Somehow. When nobody was looking. Not just one book, but a trilogy in five parts. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

I hadn't remembered much of the second half. I was reading as if for the first time —which is pleasant, but highly unsettling. As if I originally read the series while asleep, or in a parallel lifetime.

While it was an enjoyable enough diversion from the hell that is otherwise currently my life, much as I lost interest halfway through, so did Douglas Adams.

I was a bit put off, actually, by how it all ended, but I suppose Adams had to resolve some questions once and for all, and I feel thoroughly primed to see the movie now. Assuming I don't forget that I read it before the DVD is released.

Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Perez-Reverte, and freshly available in English, is reviewed:
It's all good stuff, set against a vivid and often murky Madrid that feels alive and authentic. Is it hyper-realistic, raw and/or naked? No. That's the movie. The novel is brisk and bawdy, and Pérez-Reverte writes with panache and pacing, abetted by his translator, Margaret Sayers Peden, in exactly the way a translator wants to do her abetting: by going unnoticed.

So why aren't I as enthusiastic as I thought I'd be? Is Alatriste not an absorbingly complex character? Yes. Do I not love swordplay as much as the next tío? I do. Am I not an all-around sucker for all things Spanish, especially literary and historical? Claro.

All I can tell you, then, is that the intrigue in Captain Alatriste isn't as intriguing as it could be. The whodunit and the whydunit don't, in the end, take a lot of working out.

And this is the problem, I find, with all of Perez-Reverte's books. Either there's barely a mystery to begin with, in which case much fuss is made over next to nothing (The Nautical Chart), or the endings are complicated and far-fetched (both The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas), which is unfair to the reader and, in a word, stupid.

He doesn't know when, or how, to end things, which is a shame. He has come to be known to write "literary mysteries" or "intellectual thrillers." Since I picked up The Flanders Panel, years ago, by accident, I've been following this writer. The topics and settings intrigue me: rare manuscripts, Vatican investigations, fencing. I enjoy the read, but the end always disappoints.

His recent Queen of the South is, coincidentally, next up on my bookshelf. I'll be jumping on Captain Alatriste in short order — I'm certain I'll love the ride, even if I'm a bit wary of the destination.

Much as we all have different philosophies regarding packing and moving, so it is with unpacking.

Of course, the disorderly unpacking is a direct consequence of the initial packing, where boxes were filled with absolutely no regard for either theme or location, and moving, where all boxes were deposited in the middle of the main living area. Needless to say, almost no boxes were labelled.

I'd had the foresight to label cutlery, cups and glasses, dictionaries, and office supplies and pack a bag with fresh sheets and towels. Life would in fact be not that bad were it not for the gazillion open boxes in the middle of the floor with contents pouring out of them because someone was looking for something.

I am enjoying alphabetizing and shelving my books. It's meditative. Sometimes I think I should do that for a living.

The dishwasher arrived Sunday. Imagine my confusion when the delivery men left and the dishwasher remained uninstalled. Imagine my dismay to learn this had been agreed to as a cost-saving measure, and J-F's mom's significant other would be around in a few days to take care of it for us. Imagine my horror when J-F announced he wanted to install it himself.

Imagine me biting my lip as we easily rack up the equivalent of half the installation fee on purchasing parts and equipment J-F thinks are required. Imagine my surprise when J-F's enthusiasm for the project takes hold with less than an hour to go to when I'd intended to start preparing dinner.

Imagine that six hours later, the dishwasher is not yet fully, but almost, installed (though we did break for dinner, which included overdone asparagus — damn that dishwasher in the middle of the floor for preventing me from getting to it in time).

I would've paid the $120 (CAD).

Helena's exploding brain
Helena has changed. Her vocabulary, English and French, has exploded, and her syntax is almost right. She has stories to tell.

She explains in great detail that we're approaching the escalator and I have to carry her, even though I'm also carrying her backpack and a shopping bag. She acknowledges this, but I must carry her anyway because she doesn't like escalators. She tried twice, but it's a weird sensation for her. I know all this, but she is suddenly overwhelmed by the need to communicate this to me.

She uses her old baby foot rattles as hand puppets. They haven't even settled over our fingers when she rips them off her hands and mine because she forgot to give them magic. She lays them on the floor, tells me they're sleeping, waves her hands over them, and recites some incantation in French before they "come to life" and we can resume play.

She has rediscovered the harmonica. Half a year ago, she didn't "get it." We were jamming the other day — all of us taking turns on piano, xylophone, saxoflute, maracas — so I thought I'd pull out the ol' dollar store harmonica. She won't let it out of her sight (she calls it a kazoo). She tells me about the old man in the metro who plays harmonica and demonstrates how he sways and taps a rhythm with his foot.

When Helena has a bath, she washes my feet.

We're in for a weird and wonderful ride.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Love and hate

What I hate

Not having a dishwasher yet. (The resident dishwasher to date is named Isabella.)

Bell Canada. Disconnected at old residence 8 am Monday. Technician arrives to install new service at new address 5 pm Tuesday. Dial tone achieved, but realize after technician has gone that the phone number associated to the line belongs to somebody else. Spend Wednesday explaining to dozens of callers (who gets that many phone calls?!?) that I know nothing about the person to whom the phone number actually belongs. Wait at home all day for technician to arrive sometime between 8 am and 6 pm. Sometime during the afternoon, the line goes dead (fortunately after I'd placed a few long-distance calls). Thursday, have furious and lengthy conversations with customer service reps and repairmen as they explain certain policies and I tell them regardless of their freaking policies my bloody phoneline still doesn't work, depleting my cell phone account in the process (which I have trouble refilling, because in obtaining a mortgage all credit cards were cancelled but one, and that one hasn't yet been modified to include my name). Was promised that a technician would arrive between 1 pm and 6 pm and told somebody must be home. Placed call to customer service at 5:55 pm, as no technician had arrived. Was assured technician would arrive first thing Friday morning, between 8 and 10 am. Still waiting. (But I feel a little better about it now.)

What I love
Coffee. As I make it, espresso with milk over ice in a tall, skinny glass. I think in some circles that's an iced latte.

How Helena hugs so tightly now, and coos, "Mon amie Mama."

How I can plop a bowl of strawberries and cream in front of her and there's such appreciation in her eyes, as if I'd spent hours slaving over a hot stove. "C'est délicieux."

How when climbing the stairs (which turn), she monitors my progress and insists I follow her lead to use the best hand grips, as if we were scaling Mount Everest.

That the terrace is nearing completion and they're planting shrubbery. Shrubbery!

Today is the first day of the rest of our life
Today, Helena is two and a half years old. A very happy unbirthday to you!

Today (assuming I don't have to wait at home for a phone technician), we finally clean the old residence and clear out the final contents from the hall closet, and say good-bye.

Today we close that chapter of our life and start building our home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"Digressions are the sunshine"

The move
Thanks for asking.

Everyone has a different philosophy regarding packing and moving. Of course, mine's the only right way, so why do so many people fail to see that?

Pack everything in sight — what's out of sight is out of mind — in a more or less spatial progression. Open all cupboards and closets to have full view of full inventory at all times, and pack on a more conceptual basis. Carry 5000 boxes to the car in one trip, very slowly, and put your back out. Carry one little bag at a time. Throw everything in the vehicle on a first-come, first-served basis. Didn't anyone but me ever play Tetris?

The heart attack
Or the experience of mine that most closely resembles one. In mid diaper change, I ask J-F to move this bag, it's in the way. A garbage bag full of Helena's stuffed toys. An hour later it occurs to me that I don't see the bag in the hallway. I ask J-F about it — he has no recollection whatsoever of my request or the bag. It's also garbage day. I make him poke through the bags on the curb. I eventually find the bag amid other garbage bags (full of garbage) yet to be removed to the curb, on the balcony.

The mother-in-law
Would you put a 12 pack of beer empties in a box (?!) and move it to a new residence? Heck, if we don't manage to find time to run it over to the dep sometime during the week when we're cleaning our vacated unit, we put it on the curb for some bum to stumble over and factor the $1.20 into the cost of moving.

I got a little snippy with my mother-in-law about the beer. It wasn't about the empties per se, but it was the incident that put me over an edge. It wasn't even about her.

I've been "blog-ranting" about her in my head for days, because the stress build-up simply had to be relieved and it seemed reasonable to focus my energies on her. Now, with keyboard at the ready, there doesn't seem to be much to say about her. Apparently I did drive her to tears, though the tears did not materialize till many hours after my snippy outburst, and not in my presence.

To me, it's painfully obvious that events such as moving are stressful and tiring. A person's mood in this situation is not a fair indicator of that person's outlook or character in general. It should not be taken personally. That someone might fail to recognize this mystifies me.

The problem of "territory" arises from time to time. I still feel Helena's first birthday was taken away from me. Similarly, I walked into Helena's new bedroom and my heart sank, because it was all set up. With her non-favourite toys on her bed. And a dust ruffle on the bed (I hate those). Et cetera. While I know that my mother-in-law's intentions are well-meaning, these deeds do not significantly lessen my load. These are the details of a mother's affection for her daughter and desire to make a home for her being encroached upon.

The kid
If you have to move house with a toddler on hand, don't. And especially make sure the toddler's not sick.

Helena has been less than well and more than needy. This adds much to my stress level, Helena wanting Mama and only Mama, and Mama having to relinquish control and rely on others to get other things done (see above).

Helena's been feverish and snotty-nosed. She also has eczema (have I written about this before?), and it's been severly exacerbated in recent weeks. (I wonder if stress has anything to do with it. And dust.) She scratches till she bleeds (yes, I'm a sorely negligent mother). It's all very pathetic. When she's tired she starts scratching, she scratches in her sleep, she doesn't sleep restfully. When she's a little under the weather, everything's just a little worse. Her bug or cold or infection has passed, but the eczema has become acute.

J-F took Helena to a clinic yesterday (while I waited for phone guy, cable guy, and dishwasher delivery guy); we keep smothering her in creams till she grows out of it.

The doctor
I watched Doctor Who with Helena last night. She'd napped lots and late, and I'd be damned if I was going to let her intrude on the only television hour I give a damn about, again, so watching it together while sharing a muffin seemed like the way to go. She was quick to recognize that this program does in fact have the best theme song ever. At some point (dead bodies) my inner parenting chip pinged and it occurred to me that perhaps I should be "monitoring" for content — that is, not letting her watch, which would entail my not getting to watch. Whatever. She loved the dog and the "monster" ("Rrrrawwrr," giggle, giggle).

First the cataloguer, then the editor; both with an incredibly destructive thirst for information (and the power that comes with it). Hmmm.

Translating Eco
Umberto Eco's new translator, Geoffrey Brock, talks about the experience and the book (and quotes Laurence Sterne to describe Eco's writing style: "Digressions are the sunshine.")

What an extremely challenging, but satisfying, job that must be.

(Digression: Some years ago, I heard Eco speak on problems in translation. He gave examples regarding the translation of The Name of the Rose into Russian. Rather than the Latin found in the original Italian text and English translation, they decided Old Church Slavonic would convey the intended flavour within an appropriate cultural context.)

(Digression the second: Coincidentally, the website on which the interview is featured is the first site I ever bookmarked when we brought a PC home in 1996. The first thing I did with the internet at my fingertips was search for information on Eco.)

"Bad enough to be entertaining"
"Celebrating clunky sentences and mixed metaphors, self-indulgent prose and just plain old bad writing, Lit Lite, a weekly literary series, invites performers to select and read from their favorite bad books."

I love that "heavy drinking is encouraged."

The terrace
I wish I could access my camera. (I do know which box it's in, under all those other boxes.) Our terrace is finally being built and the hourly progress as viewed through the patio doors in what we will treat as the dining room slash office slash family room or play room is amazing.

The courtyard two days ago was a mud pit. Earth and gravel have been compressed, the land has been tiered, small walls are shaping the levels. Stairs run up and down a la Escher. I'm in awe of how this outdoor space has been defined to ensure each unit has its privacy.

The lair
The condo is huge. I love it more by the minute. It's a mess, but it's ours.

We're a little disoriented. Helena came out of the bathroom this morning wondering where the stairs went, taking a minute to figure out they weren't directly opposite the door but a little further down. Myself, I keep forgetting that we can run cold water in the kitchen sink (long story). And there are no ants.

Books will line the bedroom. This is my retreat from the world.

Thursday, May 12, 2005


This time tomorrow, we will be homeowners. Ack!

We do a final inspection with the contractor in the morning, sign a bunch of papers, hand over a lot of money, and get keys.

Then we move.

On the whole, things have been going remarkably smoothly. I anticipate catastrophe to strike within the next 48 hours.

Packing is progressing but slowly. Packing is hell. I've been working hard to deliver a project this week; packing would come after that.

But wouldn't you know, Helena's running a fever and complaining of various pains, so she's home today. While obviously not well, she's in fine spirits and super active. Or maybe she only seems more active cuz there's so many boxes and newspapers strewn about to play with, stacks of stuff everywhere, and nothing can really get put away. She gets upset when I ignore her pleas for a tea party and doesn't understand why I won't let her help pack the crystal.

(She says it's her ear, but there's no sign of infection. I think it's a bad bout of teething — all her teeth came in way ahead of schedule, except for these final molars.)

Sometime this weekend, the computer will be put in a box. I won't have anyplace to write down my thoughts or troubles. I will ignore your comments and email. Internet service will be interrupted. I will want to turn to drink, but the bottles will also be packed.

See ya!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


We had the pleasure of watching Sideways a couple weeks ago, ironically while enjoying a bottle of merlot (Beringer, 2000).

"If anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking merlot."

I hadn't realized before watching the film that it was a stigmatized grape.

This article comes to its defense.

The film was a joy, the acting impeccable, and the soundtrack groovy. Even if the wine pourer did tip out different tastes into the same glass.

The passion for wine was real and unpretentious. It's not about the dinner parties or the status. One couple shares their wine stories — the lightbulb moments, when bottles burst with life and emotional flavour, when they realized wine could be something special. (I'm jealous of such epiphanies.) More than a hobby, good wine becomes a fervent pursuit.

I have had a couple memorable wine experiences — in particular, late-summer Boston, an outdoor lunch of pasta with grilled vegetables, and a fumé blanc (coincidentally also a Beringer).

I enjoy tastings, in private homes or in vineyards. I've been told by some oenophiles that I have a nose. For their benefit, I delight in swishing the liquid about my mouth and making slightly odd proclamations: Canteloupe! Mushrooms! Coriander! They nod in surprised agreement and with respect.

However, I've come to realize that for me what makes a wine special is its context, the event of it, an elusive collusion of elements, rather than the wine itself.

"Get drunk," wrote Baudelaire. Just drink the wine, taste it — really taste it — and enjoy the film.

"It is time to get drunk!"
If you do not want to be the martyred slaves of Time, get drunk, always get drunk!
With wine, with poetry or with being good.
As you please.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


When fiction becomes religion:
"Unlike Scientology, which is based on empirically verifiable scientific tenets, Fictionology's central principles are essentially fairy tales with no connection to reality."

Fictionology's central belief, that any imaginary construct can be incorporated into the church's ever-growing set of official doctrines, continues to gain popularity. Believers in Santa Claus, his elves, or the Tooth Fairy are permitted—even encouraged—to view them as deities. Even corporate mascots like the Kool-Aid Man are valid objects of Fictionological worship.

"Sure, it's total bullshit... But that's Fictionology. Praise Batman!"

[(My personal god would be found in a magic notebook (a la Auster).]

Monday, May 09, 2005


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — movie trailer.

Magical and epic! as it should be.

The lovely holiday that is Mothers' Day

Helena was extra sweet, super cute, and very kissy.

She even insisted on getting dressed all by herself.

Helena chose the outfit. Posted by Hello

(Never mind that we'd barely reached double digits on the centigrade scale and we had to change into something more appropriate before going out.)

We enjoyed brunch out and hours in the park. Helena's smile is the best gift, and I'm lucky to see it most days.

Friday I'd been invited to share snacktime with Helena at the daycare, along with the other mothers. Cupcakes! Presents!

This is the flowerpot Helena painted for me. Posted by Hello

Needless to say, I will treasure it forever.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

What I've been up to

1. Work. What timing for so much work to land in my lap earlier this week! Of course, it's work I'd previously committed to, and which is seriously behind schedule, and I'd been hoping it would be another two weeks behind schedule so we could get this whole buying a condo thing and moving into it out of the way, but no. I've been working late into the night even. But it's almost done now.

2. Procrastinating. Mostly during the day, leaving the late-night hours free for work. Sadly, I've resorted to playing solitaire. Procrastination by blogging would leave far too much tangible evidence of my lack of discipline (and my vulnerable psyche couldn't handle the guilt of that just now), as would reading anything of interest, as that would no doubt lead to inspired blogging.

3. Packing. But slowly. I'm averaging about a box a day. I haven't even packed the easy stuff (books!) yet. I don't even want to think about it, much less do it. And what the hell am I supposed to do with video cassette tapes? Or audio cassette tapes for that matter? Preserve boxes of things I don't use? Putting them out on the curb seems so rash.

4. Composing blog entries in my head. Just in case I felt I could allow myself the time to put it all down. But generally feeling uninspired. I do still have things to say about Mothers' Day, my mother and how we're so very different, the kid and how we seem to constantly engage in a battle of wills, Bambi, the movie Sideways, and the ants that are freaking me out. These thoughts may or may not materialize in this space in the hours or days ahead. Feel lucky that my rants on how I've yet to see the first 15 minutes of a Doctor Who episode because Helena knows it's the only night I actually care about where I am at 8:00 and on how nobody offers me a seat on the metro or bus while Helena insists I carry her have come and gone.

5. Missing a cousin's wedding in Chicago this weekend. I so badly wanted to be there, but then we went and bought this stupid condo, so time and money are a little short right now. To be honest, I don't know her very well, or many of my other cousins, but we do have a strong family bond — the rare occasions we find ourselves together (weddings and funerals) there's deep satisfaction, if not joy and enlightenment, in finding ourselves in each other's company. All of us. I mean, we're family. And among the cousins the opportunities for weddings are pretty much exhausted. So that leaves funerals, which one can't really plan in advance and aren't nearly as much fun. Sigh.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bringing you the world

World Literature Today honours Adam Zagajewski, the 2004 Neustadt laureate.


Between the computer, a pencil, and a typewriter
half my day passes. One day it will be half a century.
I live in strange cities and sometimes talk
with strangers about matters strange to me.
I listen to music a lot: Bach, Mahler, Chopin, Shostakovich.
I see three elements in music: weakness, power, and pain.
The fourth has no name.
I read poets, living and dead, who teach me
tenacity, faith, and pride. I try to understand
the great philosophers — but usually catch just
scraps of their precious thoughts.
I like to take long walks on Paris streets
and watch my fellow creatures, quickened by envy,
anger, desire; to trace a silver coin
passing from hand to hand as it slowly
loses its round shape (the emperor's profile is erased).
Beside me trees expressing nothing
but a green, indifferent perfection.
Black birds pace the fields,
waiting patiently like Spanish widows.
I'm no longer young, but someone else is always older.
I like deep sleep, when I cease to exist,
and fast bike rides on country roads when poplars and houses
dissolve like cumuli on sunny days.
Sometimes in museums the paintings speak to me
and irony suddenly vanishes.
I love gazing at my wife's face.
Every Sunday I call my father.
Every other week I meet with friends,
thus proving my fidelity.
My country freed itself from one evil. I wish
another liberation would follow.
Could I help in this? I don't know.
I'm truly not a child of the ocean,
as Antonio Machado wrote about himself,
but a child of air, mint and cello
and not all the ways of the high world
cross paths with the life that — so far —
belongs to me.

— Adam Zagajewski (tr. Clare Cavanagh)

Also in the current issue of WLT, dozens of really interesting thing to read, which I don't really have time for, including:
- a tribute to Polish literary Nobelists
- Jelinek's Nobel lecture
- travels in New York, Berlin, and Kazakhstan
- a short story by Tim Wynne-Jones
- thoughts on translating Hopscotch (I loved Hopscotch!)

The celebration of Gombrowicz continues. I love this bit they've quoted from Ferdydurke (tr. Danuta Borchardt):
Oh, the power of Form! Nations die because of it. It is the cause of wars. It creates something in us that is not of us. If you make light of it you'll never understand stupidity nor evil nor crime. It governs our slightest impulses. It is at the base of our collective life. For you, however, Form and Style still belong strictly to the realm of the aesthetic — for you style is on paper only, in the style of your stories. Gentlemen, who will slap your pupa which you dare turn toward others as you kneel at the altar of art? For you form is not something that is human and alive, something — I'd say — practical and everyday, but just a feature for the holidays. And while you’re leaning over a piece of paper you forget your own self — you don't care about perfecting your own individual and concrete style, you merely practice an abstract stylization in a vacuum. Instead of art serving you, you serve art — and with a sheeplike docility you let it impede your development, and you let it push you into the hell of indolence.

Naguib Mahfouz on the state of the novel and why we read:
Poetry is content with touching people’s injuries; thus they cry in pain. The novel, however, treats the injury as a skilled surgeon does; it delves into the injury and casts an illuminating light on its various dimensions and explores its multiple details.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Galactic President

Zaphod (via Shatnerian)



How I discouraged my child from pursuing a life in the theatre at a young age

...which may not be an entirely bad thing,

although instead I may have caused a trauma that will help instill a flair for drama.

We missed Helena's end-of-term theatre recital. (Yes, for two-year-olds. Last term was music.) I didn't know.

I assumed we missed the note — her course is on Mondays, and last Monday she stayed home.

Yesterday's daily report noted the performance, and that Helena was a bit stupefied in the presence of so many spectators.

The guilt that hit me when I read this was overwhelming. I didn't talk to her group leader about it for fear that I'd break down.

Helena seems to be OK with things. If anything, my tearful apologies are freaking her out more than my absence might have.

It turns out, J-F knew, and neglected to tell me. The oversight is somewhat mitigated by the fact he was writing an exam yesterday and had a lot on his mind, not to mention the general chaos of our surroundings and the effect of other home-purchase-related crap. But still...

I have to call this Parenting Fuck-up #1.

(Yes, #1 — we'll start counting fresh with this one, relegating all previous mishaps, like the time Helena rolled off the kitchen table, to another era, of Infant/Baby Care, as opposed to the active moral and social guidance, education, and encouragement of emotional or artistic expression required of actual Parenting.)

Forgive me, little one. I know you're awesome at pretending to be a fish, and you're a proficient puppetmaster, manipulating your stuffed toys and putting words in their mouths. You have a fine sense of comedic timing, and when we play monster hunting I totally buy into the concern and fear you emote. So please, understand why I wasn't there for you, and don't interpret it as a lack of support — if you really want a career on the stage, I know you have it in you to make it happen, and I'll do what I can to help.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Stuff and nonsense

Spring, I can say with full confidence, has arrived, even if it still bloody effing cold. There's little tangible proof of it, apart from slightly greener grass, but it seems the spirit, in a combination of wishful thinking and denial on the part of this city's inhabitants, has taken hold.

The tax forms are done and delivered. The burden of paying taxes remains, and I curse this freelance lifestyle and the delusion that the income I earn is actually mine to spend, but I have come to terms with it, at least for the timebeing, in the knowledge that what moneys I owe the governments comes back to me in daycare, decent health services, and relatively low rent in this province.

Kid stuff
Helena has developed a sudden and strong attraction to a bear. She's never paid this bear any attention. Two and a half years we've had this bear (longer even than we've had Helena). He sat in her crib for months, unloved. He's been sitting on the shelf with other overlooked toys. Suddenly, he is chosen. He's The Bear. He comes with us for walks in the rain, to do the groceries, to visit family. She excitedly introduced him to her grandmother, her grandmother's partner, her grandmother's partner's mother, the nice lady at the liquor store, the old woman on the park bench, and her great grandfather. I wonder how long this will last.

Going out in the rain is something I generally try to avoid, but it's much harder to avoid when one has a toddler telling you she wants to go outside. Hard to resist, and hard to argue with really, when the apartment is small and currently upside-down, play spaces overrun with boxes, and the toddler has a lot of energy she obviously needs to expend.

To the park, in the rain, in search of ducks.

Sadly, the lakes are not yet filled, with either water or ducks, but to Helena's great pleasure, many walkways and the parking lot are filled with lake-size puddles.

If you've never been puddle-jumping with a toddler, and even if you have, I recommend it. We rounded out the excursion with some seagull-chasing, and some vigorous crying which stopped just short of her lying down in a puddle to pound her fists because I refused her the opportunity to go down the water slide, by which I mean the regular playground slide in the rain.

The sun did break through yesterday, so off we went to investigate the slide situation. The playground was full. Helena was timid. I wasn't prepared for that. By the time last summer had wound down, she owned that park. The few times we trudged out in the snow, and even in recent weeks, she had the run of the place. Helena is comfortable and social in daycare, but at heart I think she may be a loner. Or, like her parents, she'll assert herself only when she's good and ready, meaning she has to know the people or situation pretty well. So with all those strange kids running around, she hung back, gripped my finger tightly, watched the other little bodies intently. We chased each other around in one corner of the park. She giggled, kept calling "Viens, Mama!" She did warm up to negotiating the slide, was willing to share space, wait her turn, but it reminds me that her socialization isn't over — it's barely begun.

Helena was stopped in her tracks on seeing another little girl wearing her raingear. (And I must say, she didn't wear it nearly so cutely as Helena.)

I continue to be amazed by the detail of imaginative play. We play "bus" and "metro" fairly regularly, Helena donning hat and shoes, gathering backpack and shopping bag, preparing to "go out." It was weeks ago already that she first combined the pretend bus and metro, assigning one particular doorframe the function of transfer dispenser. While we often transfer from one mode of transport to the other in real life, I'd never realized to what extent the details register. Of course, her whole life is made up of such detail (and ours is too, though we may not take notice). I am now scolded severely when I neglect to acquire a transfer from the doorframe or raise my knees sufficiently when climbing/descending the stairs of the bus.

Much of this last week Helena has been engaged in cleaning up "accidents." It seems both Elmo and one the Tubbies are exhibiting typical Helena behaviour in refusing to wear their diapers and then producing "messes" on the floor, which I am grateful she most diligently and promptly attends to — there's nothing like stepping in an imaginary puddle and dealing with frantic near unintelligible toddler exclamations about peepee and kaka to help blur reality.

Book stuff
Yesterday, waiting in the car while J-F popped out, Helena asleep in her seat, I caught the tail end of Carlos Fuentes reading from, I believe, his recent book of essays (excerpt), on Writers and Company, about a flourishing literal cross-border trade in literature, the currency of ideas. (He sounds like a much younger man.) It makes me more than a little sorry that I had to miss Blue Metropolis this year.

I've been rereading Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's trilogy (in five parts). We'd started before Christmas, reading aloud at bedtime, in anticipation of the movie. It didn't take long before we fell out of the habit, but I've been zipping through it over the last week whenever I find a few spare minutes, and this to some extent compensates for the fact that we won't be getting out to see a movie in a theatre any time soon. It turns out my memory of the radio play is much more vivid than that of the actual book. There are stretches I don't remember reading at all. Which makes it all very fresh and exciting.

Packing up books: Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold, puts a smile on my face. It's one of the more entertaining books I've read in recent memory. Magic! Murder! Romance! Traumatic childhood! Pirates! I mention it now only cuz I wish he'd write something else for me to read already.

Last call for free books. Some are spoken for, but many remain. I intend to have them shipped off to you by the end of the week.

Hilary Mantel's The Giant O'Brien is still up for grabs. Though maybe it shouldn't be — I'd received it as a gift and I notice now that there's an inscription. Plus, I did rather enjoy it. However, all the great press her new book is receiving notwithstanding (and it does sound intriguing), I had the misfortune of hearing her in interview a year or two ago, and I thought her sssoooo pretentious, so full of herself and her writerly life, "listen to me go on about my grand revelations" when in fact they are perfectly ordinary, please get over yourself, that I am loathe to read another word of hers.

(I remember hearing one young author talk about having lived in Greece. It turned out she spent a summer there. Three months. Sure, you set up a homebase, immerse yourself in the local culture, but that hardly qualifies as living there. A year maybe. Or if you had with you all your worldly possessions and were struggling to find work to support yourself the whole while. But mommy and daddy footing the bill and maintaining your apartment for your return doesn't count. That's a vacation, it's not "living abroad." I really hate when people exaggerate.)

The reports have swished about for some time, and the new library in town is there to drive the point home, but I have a hard time believing that Quebeckers (at least Montrealers) don't read. When I moved here three years ago one of the things I found most striking was that almost everyone who rode public transit had a book in their hands. This was in stark contrast to the blank-faced commuters in other cities I've spent any time in. Montreal drivers are dangerous, many of them so because they have newspapers open beside them. In summer, every park bench is occupied equally by people and books. No matter the age or language. They're reading international books and classics along with genre fiction (definitely more fiction than nonfiction). Maybe it's only those people who ride the same routes as I do, hang out in this particular park, sit in those cafés that flank my path. But I can't reconcile the anecdotal evidence to the official reports. Maybe I will take on the project this summer to document "books seen being read in Montreal."

Other stuff
Reality TV finds religion. (via Mirabilis)