i am the interruption of assumptions: who am i?

“…I’m actually more interested in how our minds use language as a way to organize the world—that is, the way the mind searches for stability by creating categories and classifications, and the way it makes meaning. I’m quite serious in saying that the study of riddles—their long history, their presence in nearly every culture of the world in every age, their subversive nature—affects our mode of thinking. Riddles interrupt our human inclination to stash things in well-defined cubby holes, to insist upon order and to find ‘solutions’ to things that puzzle us. Riddles ask us sometimes to live comfortably without firm solutions. At their best they can each us to think metaphorically, to find fresh ways to say things, to think about indirection as a writing strategy, to build a tolerance for alternative meanings and contradictory truths, to turn away from infallibility and learn to live with our own stupidities, and to question assumptions—something every writer, not to mention every good citizen in a participatory democracy, should know how to do. For example, here’s a riddle, which is not poetry but which I do like:

A bus driver was heading down a street in Colorado. He went right past a stop sign without stopping, he turned left where there was a ‘Not left Turn’ sign and he went the wrong way on a one-way street past a cop car. Still—he didn’t break any traffic laws and didn’t get a ticket. Why not?

(Because he was walking.)

“Our assumptions are wrong from the beginning, and the person who framed this riddle understood how to manipulate the reader into believing one thing (a bus driver only drives) while many alternative things about a bus driver are true—for example, a bus driver can walk. Riddles obstruct our desire to pigeon-hole people, objects and events, and to keep things neatly organized in categories. They make us rethink our assumptions.

“I’m interested in that. I’m interested in the interruption of assumptions. as a technique of fiction. We lead people to believe something, based on the preconceptions they come into the story with. Then we turn those preconceptions on their head, and we take our readers someplace unexpected.”

— an excerpt from Who Am I ?  What the Lowly Riddle Reveals, by Julie Larios.



treasure among my stacks

Stumbled over during a recent bout of perusing…

“He says, slowly, that there is an island in Grand Lake called Glover Island. And Glover is the largest island on the island of Newfoundland. And on Glover there is a pond. And on that pond there is a smaller island. I want, he says, to paddle up Grand Lake and portage over Glover Island. Get to that pond and cross to the island and spend a night. He says there’s only one other island in the world with a lake holding an island, and a pond on that island with an island in that pond, and that place is Sumatra. And if you took a globe and put a finger on Newfoundland and another finger on Sumatra you’d see they’re pretty much on opposite sides of the earth.”   —Excerpt from a story by Michael Winter, as found in the essay: The Ends of the Earth, by Lisa Moore (The Walrus, July/August, 2006).

But what Michael Winter story is it from??

“Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord’s old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.” —Opening paragraph, ‘Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass’ by Carol Shields

“God, this is what literature is supposed to sound like—one man simply telling another man the simple humiliations and agonies and always-too-late epiphanies that add up to his and everybody else’s life—and not a sack of tricky tropes to be toted out and professionally employed in order to expertly con the reader into imagining a pretty little Book Club-approved daydream.”from What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson

“I grew up cynical, married an optimist. A field biologist who held the legs of songbirds pinched between thumb and fingers and described their plumage to me. We hiked through boreal forest, scrambled above alpine meadows, strolled the banks of the North Saskatchewan River. We walked beneath the ten thousand rustling wings of crows bedding down for the night on the electrical wires beside a remnant stand of trees. As we walked, beneath our feet we found the torn feathers of a grouse, the long shadow of a hawk. Death, I saw, is part of the beauty of this world, as painful as it is. And so, I learned to balance here. Walking with my optimist, I found I could stay standing even if the world would not stay still.”from the essay ‘A Container of Light’ by Lisa Martin-Demor, The New Quarterly #120.

“Everyone wants in on it. Everyone! Not just the cat, the pig and the dog. The horse too, the cow, the rhinoceros, the orang-outang, the horn-toad, the wombat, the duck-billed platypus, you name it. There’s no peace any more and all because of that goddamn loaf of bread… It’s not easy being a hen.” —from ‘The Little Red Hen Tells All’, in the collection Good Bones, by Margaret Atwood

“I remember a story my father once told me. A boy is playing in the sandbox in the schoolyard, and darkness falls. He hears the voice of his mother calling him in for supper. On his way home, he loses his way in the shadows and walks until his feet are sore. He curls up against the side of a stranger’s house and falls asleep. In the morning, the sun pries open his eyelids. He is back in the schoolyard. He realizes he is not the boy at all, but the sandbox, and so he is already home.” — from ‘Bouncing’, in the collection Buying Cigarettes for the Dog, by Stuart Ross



flavour vs taste

“The typical consumer believes that naturally flavoured processed food is somehow healthier than artificially flavoured processed food. The distinction is laughable… Flavours are value-neutral from a health standpoint. They are chemicals. The only difference between a natural and synthetic flavour is the source material and derivation process. Take cherry for example. What gives cherries their ‘cherriness’ is a molecule called benzaldehyde. To make natural cherry flavour, you start with cassia, a tree bark related to cinnamon and, using chemical-free processes like pressure and steam, extract from it cinnamic aldehyde. This can then be converted into benzaldehyde, the base of natural cherry flavour. To make an artificial cherry flavour, you extract the benzaldehyde from coal tar on petroleum using chemical processes. The molecules resulting from both processes are identical, although the natural flavour costs ten to fifty times more to produce.

“Aside from flavour, the other ingredients in ‘all natural’ foods—starches, proteins, fats, etc.—are often dramatically modified from their naturally occurring states in order to produce products that better withstand the intense processing required to manufacture safe packaged food.  ‘All-natural processed food’ is an oxymoron and a myth… But the idea that it’s better for you is deeply ingrained in society. It’s become a key to success from a consumer-acceptance standpoint.”

—excerpted from ‘Frontiers of Flavour’ by Nelson Handel (The Walrus, June 2005)

the illusion of a forest…

“The natural disaster of a forest fire returns carbon to the soil, enriching it for the new forest to come. A clear-cut removes the trees that are the source of that carbon. To walk there is to see a landscape devastated as if by bombs. Reforestation? It seems that real care is taken only for the hills and mountains that border highways where tourists and people from the cities can see them. Those are the clear-cuts where the corporations put up signs to tell the passing cars when the forest was replanted and how well it is doing today.

“The corporations rarely harvest their trees right up to a highway. If you stop your car and walk 300 metres into a forest, you will often stumble across a clear-cut hidden from the cars that pass. The trees you see by the side of the road are the illusion of a forest left there to salve your conscience. Back out of sight, on the plateaus and hills and mountains, the forests are doing poorly. The variety of species is reduced to one of fir, pine, hemlock, spruce, tamarack, or whatever, depending on which of one or two species is likely to return the greatest profit.

“Diversity of species is anathema to the managers of the new forest. Monoculture is king. It is precisely what happened on the vast prairie, where rich and diverse grasslands were replaced with fields of grain. The landowner’s system of fallowing fields on alternate years allowed for massive evaporation from the bare earth. The moisture rising from the subsoils brought with it salts from the ancient seas that once covered the land, and when the moisture evaporated, it left the salt behind. Vast areas of the Great Plains are pocked with crystal deserts where nothing grows.”

~ excerpted from ‘The Forest’s Edge’, by Patrick Lane (The Walrus, May 2005)

i’ve got mail…

An especially nice delivery today included the gorgeous piece of always-art that is The New Quarterly, issue 121—reason enough to stop everything, boil some leaves and find a comfy chair—but this issue also features a [new] novel excerpt from the smart and funny Michelle Berry

[Note to self: brew extra big pot of tea.]

Also got three lovely chapbooks, ordered through Alberta Books after hearing about their literary salons. Events are intimate gatherings of twenty or so in private living rooms throughout Calgary—not designed to sell wagon-loads of books, but rather to appreciate words in the best way: with others who appreciate words. Each chapbook, simple but beautifully presented, is signed by all contributing authors, who vary from established to emerging and include, among others, Aritha van Herk, Jeramy Dodds and Betty Jane Hegerat.

What I love best is the nod these salons give to perhaps a more elegant past when life was possibly a bit slower and the world definitely a bit smaller and the pleasure of one’s company was what it was all about.

And the word ‘salon’.
I just love that word.

 “Mohammed told me that Palestinians are born knowing how to sling a stone. He joked that West Bank boys emerge from their mother’s womb swinging their umbilical cords over their heads. I stood behind the shabaab, afraid of being hit by an errant rock, and watched as they co-opted King David’s weapon against his own heirs. Some wrapped keffiyehs around their head to hide their faces, but most didn’t bother. The rain slickened cheeks too young for beards, and soaked through their blue jeans. Slings dangled from pockets like something cool.”  ~from In the Shadow of the Wall: Travels Along the Barricades, by Marcello Di Cintio (to be released by Goose Lane Editions in Fall, 2012)

More Mail:

art lesson

pocalogging to my own tune

dear mr. postman

the reason i like mail

so the money thing… it’s not just a rumour??

Advertisement for the Palmer Institute of Authorship, from which a “free typical lesson package and book: The Art of Writing Salable Stories”, can be requested by mailing coupon to: 1680 N. Sycamore, Desk GD-16, Hollywood, CA.
~as seen in Astrology Guide, Vol 19, No 1, Jan-Feb 1956

Now then, should there be even the slightest doubt about the validity of writing programs offered in the front pages of astrology magazines… please consider a testimonial from J.G. Doar, whoever he may be: “After completing only the first few lessons I felt I knew what a short story is. My success will not affect my study of the Palmer Course.”

If that isn’t enough to convince the cynics, there are other devotees—equally giddy, confident and obscure in their success. (A.B. Aretz anyone?)

Had the Palmer folks been really smart or, better yet, prescient, they’d have asked for a few words from a young Raymond Carver who was among those that sent away for the package— and also came to know what a short story is. More or less.

(Though they did get one from A.E. Van Vogt, who claimed the Palmer course was a milestone in his career, after which his entire income, he said, was made through writing.)

[Incidentally, the man in the photograph above the caption: “Famous Author Praises Palmer” is Howard Hughes’ brother, Rupert Hughes.]

Interesting times.

Be Reasonably Considerate

Swiped from the divine pages of Geist’s summer issue:

From “Eleven Tips on Getting More Efficiency Out of Women Employees,” written for male supervisors during World War II and published in Transportation Magazine in 1943.

PICK young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they’re less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or they wouldn’t be doing it, they still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.
     When you have to use older women, try to get the ones who have worked outside the home at some time in their lives. Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It’s always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.
     General experience indicates that “husky” girls—those who are just a little on the heavy side—are more even-tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.
     Whenever possible, let the inside employee change from one job to another at some time during the day. Women are inclined to be less nervous and happier with change.
     Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticism. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do. Never ridicule a woman—it breaks her spirit and cuts off her efficiency.
     Be reasonably considerate about using strong language around women. Even though a girl’s husband or father may swear vociferously, she’ll grow to dislike a place of business where she hears too much of this.
     Get enough size variety in operators’ uniforms so that each girl can have a proper fit. This point can’t be stressed too much in keeping women happy.

when it rains it pours (and i speak in cliches…)

As if yesterday’s rain, CNQ, Granta and ARC weren’t enough excitement, today The New Quarterly arrived in my mailbox—which renders me officially not sure where to begin.

As usual, TNQ is visually stunning. A treat simply to hold—another testament to the power of ‘real’ reading material versus an e-version… but I mustn’t digress.

Might begin this one with Kerry Clare’s piece, ‘Love is a Let-Down’the background of which she writes about so movingly, and maybe follow that with ‘Figures of Speech’a series of portraits painted by Alan Dayton, of fourteen writers, including Diane Schoemperlen, Sharon English, Steven Heighton, Russell Smith, each of whom were asked to offer commentary on how it feels to see themselves through the eyes of another. Interesting exercise for people whose talent—and business—it is to so easily and cavalierly see others through their eyes. 

My god. And that’s just two.

I think I need more rain.


let it rain, let it rain, let it rain

I’m happily ensconced with my new purchases…

To complement each year’s subscriptions (which change annually) I find myself occasionally at the local Chapters perusing their sometimes good, sometimes poor, selection of magazines and journals. (For the record: the only things I buy there are magazines and journals; I buy my candles and sofa throws elsewhere…) Anyway, on a recent visit I was actually somewhat (pleasantly) surprised with the selection. I hope this bodes well, as in maybe more people are discovering the myriad joys within these little treasures??

So here’s what I chose and why:

Arc, because, as Anita Lahey states in the Editor’s Note: “…this is the most colourful, visually rich issue ever to have been produced in the lifetime of this modest, non-profit magazine.”

And because, among many other lovely things, there’s a Conversation with Anne Simpson, who marries poetry and art so very beautifully.

CNQ, which I didn’t even notice was the Spring/Summer issue but who cares because, more importantly—it’s the Short Story Issue. I’m especially looking forward to a piece by Douglas Glover, whose writing I so enjoy, on Alice Munro.

And Granta, whose theme is ‘Pakistan’, and because of this:

Life and Time

We grow up
but do not comprehend life.
We think life is just the passing of time.
The fact is,
life is one thing,
and time something else.
—Hasina Gul

Seems only right in the face of all this anticipated pleasure to say thank you to those who not only publish these works of art in a climate that isn’t exactly welcoming, but do so with heart and passion. 

It shows.


cheating on my affair with memoir

Though the affair continues quite happily, being my fickle self I’ve occasionally dipped a toe into the fiction well. (How exactly does one dip a toe into a well? Wouldn’t that require a tragically long leg?)

Never mind.

Most recently, the well, or whatever, included short stories from the Summer Reading issue of The Walrus —for which Lisa Moore, Rawi Hage, Micahael Winter, Heather O’Neill, et al, were asked to write the “most Canadian story they could think of…” (inspiration for the challenge allegedly taken from someone’s memory of a man who got away with robbing a bank by threatening to harm a Canada goose). I just love us. 

One of my favourite pieces is Zsuzsi Gartner’s ‘Say the Names’—written as a letter (to “American woman, swamp angel, friend of my youth”) using only titles of Canadian songs, movies, books, and signed: “Baby, so long, Marianne.” 

Also some poetry by David McGimpsey, such as this—

My Life as a Canadian Writer

My first short story, ‘The Provincial Fair’,
was rejected twenty-five times before
it found its home in
 The Muskoka Review.
From then on it’s all been pretty easy.

I learned the beauty of socialism
from writers so passionate they’d cry
when they didn’t get a grant. We’d go north
and laugh at the thought of Alden Nowlan.

Yes, I have been on the radio!
If you heard that segment of
Canada Reads
where a guy recommends the novel version
of Tom Cruise’s
Top Gun, that was me.

Now I live and work in Montreal.
All we do is sit in cafes and talk through
the one remaining question of literature:
is it available for free on the Internet?


Lovely bite-sized stuff and perfect for the toe-dipping, cheating kind of  reading that for some reason is always better in summer…