Saturday, May 30, 2009

The weakness that lurks in strength

I was really struck this week by a quotation from a news story that said cancer cells "are very sick cells that have needed to make a lot of compromises."*

This is just something I never considered. I mean, you look at cancer cells, switching off their self-destruct button and multiplying until they overcome everything around them, and you don't think about their being weak. Short-sighted, maybe, since killing one's host while trapped inside it is not the best way to prolong one's own life, but not weak.

It's a ridiculous line of thought but hey, it's the weekend - what if cancer cells have made so many compromises they aren't even aware any more of the implications of their actions? I always imagine non-cancerous cells to be quite selfless and socially-minded compared to cancerous ones, which seem self-absorbed and hate-filled (can you tell I'm a fanciful writer and not a medically trained person?) but if they're sick - maybe they don't know it. Maybe they could be rehabilitated. Maybe this is the far-distant future of cancer care - healing the cancer cells instead of killing them.

Then there's the betrayal factor. Cancer cells don't start out sick. They're not some virus that got in from outside, though I know a virus can sometimes turn a vulnerable cell bad. An awful lot of cancer cells must just be born and raised to live healthy lives of service before going horribly wrong and cannibalizing their own selves, by which I mean us. That's got to be the biggest compromise of all.

More unexpectedness: feeling sorry for a cancer cell. I diagnose sleep deprivation (again) and will medicate with a cup of tea.

*Stephen Elledge, Harvard

Friday, May 29, 2009

Expecting the unexpected

For various compelling reasons, I would never guess I'd spend a Thursday afternoon looking through an English - Chinese dictionary, but I did that yesterday and enjoyed it so much I might even do it again today.

Other unexpectedness:

I did not eat the other half of my Oreo ice cream sandwich.

I hardly did any knitting even though I could have.

I didn't think about writing (much.)

I ate really crummy mass-produced toast for lunch with peanut butter for the palability factor and considered seconds.

I hardly cursed my trainer at all even though she made me do side planks (don't ask.)

I missed a sale at Etsy and didn't cry.

Not unexpected: loving all the rain that poured down. I really, really like a rainy day.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Desk revisited

I worked in so many offices before I went freelance, most of them being the reason I went freelance. In one, for reasons I still can't quite discern since it was not a bank or indeed anyplace where the general public might venture, the CEO decided that no personal effects would be permitted to sit out in plain view. Plants, photographs of loved ones, bobble-headed computer friends, pretend trophies with "World's Best Mom/Dad/Insert Name Here" printed on them - all were ordered home in an official memo. Pretty much everybody ignored it.

I myself consider desk effects to be an important part of working life. They can be inspiring, comforting, grounding, and even functional. I'm not getting much desk time at the moment but the cuteness of the new desk makes me long to get back to it all the time. Here's how it looked the other day when I had to work out a mitten pattern for imminent posting on My Other Blog:

My friend Helena, being a glassmaker with great taste, will be annoyed by the giant red plastic bowl. However, it falls into the functional category as an excellent non-breakable container for some things of the inspiring variety (emergency knitting and spinning.) Postcards, tea, the book I'm still trying to comprehend, my ruler, and best of all a lovely view. It's an excellent place for a writer.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Thoughts on natural patterns

I sat down this week with a copy of The Self-Made Tapestry by Philip Ball. Here are some of my thoughts:

1/ Wow, I am so not as smart as I look with my glasses on.

2/ I wonder how Philip Ball can write a science book of this depth and value and have it not be a life's work, but write a bunch more of them?

3/ What kind of career makes this kind of research standard currency?

4/ It is such a good thing I didn't try to study for that kind of career, whatever it is.

5/ How cool is it that slimy single-cell bacteria emit scent when times are tough to attract other slimy single-cell bacteria so they can team up into a multi-cell unit, each with different jobs, and house a bunch of babies that can live on nothing until times improve?

6/ How gross are clumps of slimy single-cell bacteria? Probably super gross. Neat, but ew.

7/ This is like humans really - everybody likes to have independence and choice, but hardly anybody wants to be alone in the middle of a genuinely terrifying horror movie moment. On the other hand, not so many people are sufficiently non-independent to agree on all the different jobs they'd each have to do to protect themselves from an axe-wielding horror guy. Probably more than a few of them would argue enough about who has to take the garbage out not to notice the axe sneaking up behind them, and they'd get hacked out of the clump.

8/ These patterns are just beautiful. I wish I could understand more than three sentences on an average page. Philip Ball is supposed to be a really accessible writer - am I really not as smart as I look with my glasses on? Maybe it's the sleep deprivation.

9/ Maybe it's not the sleep deprivation. I couldn't grasp the lay version of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time either. I'm pretty sure I wasn't sleep deprived when I tried to read that.

10/ Oh well. At least I can see with my glasses on.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A nicer surprise

The Sweet Woodruff I put in last July is coming along nicely:

I've lost count of how many times I've spent a ton of money buying baby Woodruffs only to watch them die away after the first couple of years without ever flowering. And yet I keep buying more. Such faith!

I can't wait to see whether it spreads and fills in so I don't need to load up the lawn with mulchy chips.

Oops, that's asking too much, isn't it. I might jinx them. Hoo boy. Where's wood to knock?

No, really, just the flowers are good. Honest.

Monday, May 25, 2009


When I planted my garden last summer -

and if you're new here, you may be amused to know that this meant getting somebody else to scrape off what passed for grass from the whole of the front lawn and dig down a bit through tree roots, then getting myself to haul and position 2 tons of limestone screenings and 1 ton of flagstone inside of five or so evenings (hello biceps!) -

I did not expect that this:

would grow up into this:

I mean, honestly. In its original compact form it stayed green all winter. Am I going to have tall green spikey things sticking up out of the snow next Valentine's Day? Am I supposed to trim it down instead?

It looks like it's about to flower. When I did my planting I was obsessed with sticking to a green and white palette, so I expect these flowers will be white. I sure hope they're pretty.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Last week, a friend gave me one of those miracle sandwiches that make you wonder why you keep smearing peanut butter on white bread and calling it food. Here is the recipe:

Multigrain/seed bread
Slices of freshly roasted chicken
Drippings from said chicken
Crisp lettuce
Flavourful tomatoes and
Giant wedges of cheddar cheese.

I mean seriously! Who puts cheddar cheese in a chicken sandwich?? Have I been living under a rock or is that not the most brilliant concept ever?

I know another mean sandwich maker too. I recognize that I'm a bit slow when it comes to savories, but it never occurred to me to use cranberry sauce in a turkey sandwich until she nonchalantly handed me just such a one the day after Thanksgiving a few years back. So the other day, still sighing over the memory of sandwich excellences, I picked up a few matching things from the grocery store and came home to make something brilliant of my own for once. And here is that recipe:

Mutigrain/seed bread with honey in the dough
A smidge of butter
Crisp lettuce
Heirloom tomato slices and
Havarti cheese

Way less labour-intensive but wow. So fabulous. You gotta have the great bread though, especially if you're not using chicken drippings.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Last night I spent about an hour spinning yarn, not to be confused with spinning yarns. It's an amazingly meditative task even when you're as awful at it as I am.

To compensate for my awfulness I decided to loosen up the fiber in a big way; it came in a snug braid, and my job was to spread it out and tease it apart until it was thin enough to take twist and become strong, just as we have to make ourselves vulnerable sometimes to become stronger.

Well, as I was teasing apart the fiber, something that requires your hands to be a good distance apart by the way - if they're too close and controlling, the fibers resist and won't come apart, which makes another interesting life lesson - I noticed for the first time just how much is in those braids. A lot, in fact. And I said to myself, "It's like unpacking!" which led me back again to writing.

One of the many useful tips that came out of the workshop I took with Wayson Choy last summer was the term "unpack!" If you came across a sentence like this:

"Jan touched the scar on her face just enough to dislodge some of the powder, to justify excusing herself for a trip to the ladies' room."

You'd all but shout, "Unpack!"

and have the writer expand on where the scar came from, why Jan needed an excuse to go to the ladies' room, and perhaps what she really planned to do there. I myself am also wondering now whether the self-consciousness about her scar is her own, or a reflection of others' discomfort or disgust or her fear of same, but since I'm not writing about Jan (or anybody else at the moment unfortunately) we'll leave that question for another day.

My point is, the same rule applies to life. It's so nice sometimes to gather up all the little complexes and issues and idiosyncrasies that make up our lives and put them into an envelope and label it. It creates a sense of control over our existence. But sometimes it's more important to let things get messy - to unpack it all and spread it out and look at it for what it is. Yes, you're exposing yourself to a lot of pain, but like fiber accepting twist to become strong, you end up capable of so much more than you were before.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Procrastination art

I am still smitten with the Mother's Day cards I made for my mum and aunt this year. Here are two more, made from junk mail like the ones I posted to mark the day. Can you guess what the original photographs for these ones were advertising?

(bubble gum ice cream and spaghetti sauce with meatballs, with garlic bread centres!)

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bedknobs and Broomsticks

Last week I borrowed Bedknobs and Broomsticks from the library, wondering how it stands up since I last saw it... at the local theatre when it was a new release, Mary said, dating herself.

The answer: very well. The only thing I remembered was the sight of all those empty suits of armor marching over the hills to fight off a Nazi raid, so the animated section in the middle was a pleasant surprise. And the music! I'd forgotten how catchy it all is. I ended up watching it a few times and renewing it for another week to knit by and to further reflect on how old I am, and how far special effects have come, and what great calves Angela Lansbury had back in the day. I've seen her in some of her pretty starlet films and I knew she was meant to be evil/sexy in The Manchurian Candidate, but so much gets overwhelmed when you get a show as successful as Murder, She Wrote. If my calves looked like that I'd wear 1970s interpretations of 1940s skirts every day of the week.

In light of all that, it struck me as funny to have spotted this on Jezebel the other day... more ideas out of the ether, an expression I must absolutely never use again (no matter how often it happens to me.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Procrastination wreath

It's amazing I still haven't had a call from Martha Stewart. I mean, check out the wreath I bought for my door in December 2007! I've been creatively procrastinating about tossing it for more than a year now.

The wreath was super cute left plain for its first holiday season - it's a basic boxwood, I think, but the leaves were variegated in minty green and cream. It still looked great at Valentine's Day so I put a big red bow on it. And a pastel one for Easter, and a pink one for the summer. By October it had dried out completely but the straw colouring was so perfect for the fall I decided to hang onto it a bit longer. And when it was time to buy a new Christmas wreath for 2008, I decided the straw now looked enough like gold to serve as a nice backdrop for some wine-coloured velvet bows and cuttings of the ivy creeping into my yard from one of the neighbour's gardens.

This past weekend I thought, Enough is enough! And then I looked closer and saw that the dried-out ivy has lovely purple undertones now. So I added a shabby chic ribbon and the ties from a pair of chocolate Easter bunnies. I doubt I can get much more than another month or two out of it though, unless I find some little buckets and shovels to tie on for a summer sand theme. It does look like a pile of sand left in the front hall after everybody's dumped the contents of their shoes, don't you think?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Giving versus receiving

The advantage to giving over receiving is not so much its being socially 'better' but the way it is emotionally better. When you give something away you're not having it yourself, which is kind of a drag. Compensation: a good feeling to carry around with you - one that you can't buy in any store or even make with your hands. It only comes from knowing you've helped somebody else.

I quite like giving and do it whenever possible, especially when it doesn't involve much work; I find it amazing how so little from me, when well-timed and appropriately directed, can mean so much to somebody else. It's like the days following a funeral, when people start showing up with food because they want to help and none of them know offhand how to bring the dead back to life and a good meal is at least something. I still remember all these years later some Italian friends showing up with dry pasta and some sauce - not even home made - and insisting on cooking it. Minimal effort. Huge impact. Delicious, too.

Still... even though you know you're sort of giving when you receive, because the giver is getting that good feeling, it's hard to accept help. It's hard to accept even that you need help. That's probably why I offer help so much more than I take it. And it's probably why it's such a nice surprise, when somebody shows up with a fresh-from-the-oven quiche and a salad when supper is so far from your mind it isn't likely to have happened at all, to find it feels pretty darned great to say Thank you! and accept not only the material goods, but the love that came with them.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mmmm I love Turtles

Some kind soul brought me a tub of Turtles ice cream the other day. I love Turtles: nobody does milk chocolate, caramel, and pecans better. Let's take a moment to marvel over the fact that I haven't eaten it all yet, shall we?

And now I'd like to share the slogan from the side of the tub, which for some reason I stayed out of the inside of it long enough to notice:

"Satisfy your mind and body with a delicious scoop of Nestle Turtles." There's a registration mark after the Nestle but I am insufficiently keyboard-savvy to know how to add one. My apologies to any lawyers who may come calling.

What do you think that means, "mind and body"? Seriously, I'd like to know. Does it mean that if you spend most of the day eating nothing else, you'll get 11 hours' sleep? Because that would explain how I got 11 hours' sleep last night. You know, that and going to bed ridiculously early.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I hate to say I told you so...

No, really. When you tell likable people this:

Don't you realize how easy it would be to fall and crack your head on the sidewalk and end up in the hospital doing that?

and they fall and crack their head on the sidewalk and end up in the hospital,

you really really hate to say I told you so.

And yes, thank you for asking - everything is fine now. If I'm not posting something scintillating here you can rest assured I'm merely indulging myself by brewing another cup of restorative tea.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009

another WWII day

Yesterday I gave in to temptation and watched Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I went to see it in a theatre when it was first released, which I suppose technically makes me a grownup, though - ha! you'd have to be either a little crazy, or twelve, to think so.

I'd forgotten all of the plot in spite of my fond memories of empty suits of armor marching over the fields, which turns out to have been quite sensible of me: all the stuff about English apprentice witch Miss Price animating the armor with a spell to fight off a German raid in 1940 was not taken from the two books on which the film is based. In fact, according to Wikipedia, there is no reference to the war in the books at all. I hope to confirm this for myself when said books turn up via inter-library loan.

Still, between that and knitting my first-ever sock - something I've often wondered about people doing over and over again to help with various war efforts - I wasn't surprised when I sat down at the TV at night just in time for a documentary about a terrible 1943 air battle in which many Allied pilots were killed. Being me, I was moved by the story of the one surviving pilot and the sister of one of the dead returning to the scene to lay a memorial stone... and simultaneously preoccupied with the scenery, which is breathtaking. Must. Visit. Norway.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

My other office

You might find this hard to believe, but even when I procrastinate I'm pretty darned productive. I just have to take drastic measures sometimes to make it so.

Like lately, I've had to leave the house to do any writing whatsoever. At home I have The Internet. At the coffee shop, not only do I have people around who would notice if I got up and wandered around and stared out the window, I have to pay to have The Internet. I don't have an automatic hookup, and I can turn a switch on my laptop to keep it from even thinking about looking for a connection. The sad thing is that it's not just for writing. I had to go there all last week when I had those editing deadlines, too.

I'm very, very productive in the coffee shop... while drinking hot chocolate, and eating a seed-studded breakfast bar that's basically a Rice Krispie Treat made with dried fruits and nuts instead of Rice Krispies and stuck together with gobs of honey and Golden Syrup. Isn't that interesting? At home (at the moment) I'm eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and other sensible things, and I'm not writing. At my other office, I'm eating sugar and writing up a storm. Coincidence? I hope not.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Isabella Rossellini and the Self

In the continuing saga of recurring themes popping up around me, I bring you the Self. It started when I read an article in - do I have to say the New Yorker or will you have guessed already? - about solitary confinement and its horrible impact on mental health. However much we like ourselves, we can have too much of us, which is one reason alone time for writing is such a mixed blessing.

See what I did there? I mentioned the horrific mental destruction wrought by people on other people, and related it directly back to my own superficial needs. For such socially-dependent beings, humans go back instinctively to the self an awful lot of the time. Last night I had a chance to hear Isabella Rossellini talk about her life, which was wonderful (her talk I mean, though her life seems to have been very rich and wonderful in its own way) and several times she reminded me of this very thing.

She told us that during her contract with Lancome, her daughter believed for a time that everybody's mother's picture was on giant posters everywhere you went so that if you got lost, you could point and say That's my mom! Asked about her goals for life today she said admiringly that her children are very idealistic but that "As I get older... I just want to laugh!" And when another person in the audience asked what she would ask her mother if she were able to ask anything, she said she would ask how she coped when all of the children grew up and left home, because her own youngest child will be doing that soon.

The fact is we never stop needing things from others, which makes it very lucky that along with self-preservation we have instincts for empathy and compassion that allow us to give to others as well. I can only think that we should make a point of giving more, because giving is healthy and feeds our Selves. If the reverse is true, I can't see why we make our journeys into and out of life on our own.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Fabric and Time

I got reading a knitting book last week with designs inspired by another book I definitely must read, which explores repeating patterns in nature. Apparently there are only so many. For example, the branching of a tree's limb and root system is echoed by other plants and by frost and fissures in dry earth, and even in bark.

Got me thinking again about the shape of time. When you read history it seems like a sequence of events:

But as anyone who's lost a loved one can tell you, the pain from a difficult period spills over into the same time of year of every year after it like a stain that soaks in - and that makes time seem more like a coil:

Sometimes people talk about the fabric of time. If it's a fabric, then what affects one part destabilizes everything around it and threatens even what's further away, because everything is interwoven:

But maybe that's not right either. Maybe time is all just a big wrinkly jumble to interpret however the mood strikes you, knowing it will never make any real sense.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Bully for you

In spite of its being spring and very bloomy out, I've been stumbling across an awful lot of angry people this week who are looking for a fight with some inoffensive person or other. Why do you think that is? It's all ages, but mostly people of the male persuasion. The economy? The 'flu? A deficiency of ice cream?

Here's the thing: I've never been very good at walking away from a bully. And what I am good at - putting together on the spot a rational argument for preferable behaviour and uttering it without a single shake in my voice - only works some of the time. If it doesn't intimidate or shame the bully it's just humiliating and ratchets up the tension. Some day, this is going to get me into a lot of trouble.

I wish there was a Skills Mart where I could swap some of my verbal ability for the kind that hostage negotiators use. It's not like I don't already have compassion for others, or a morbid writerly interest in what exactly motivates meanness. But I also wish I could just walk on by. I mean really - negativity breeds more negativity, and given the choice, I'd gladly spend my days in the land of tiny happy.