Reading list: Isaac Babel

How to start: Isaac Babel was a multi-talented writer who was executed at 45 during one of Stalin’s great purges. John Updike wrote an excellent synopsis of his life in the New Yorker. In the Wikipedia entry on Babel, George Saunders is quoted as saying: “There’s a Russian writer named Isaac Babel that I love. I can drop in anywhere in his works, read a few pages and go, Oh yeah, language. It’s almost like if you were tuning a guitar and you heard a beautifully tuned one and you say, Yeah, that’s what we want. We want something that perfect. When I read him, it recalibrates my ear. It reminds me of the difference between an OK sentence and a really masterful sentence. Babel does it for me.”

Favourite passage:
“You’re shortsighted, eh?”
“Quite so.”
“Alexander Fyodorovich, you ought to wear glasses.”
“Never!”
Then, bubbling over like a mere boy, I said to him:
“Just think: you’re not merely blind, you’re practically dead! Line, that divine trait, mistress of the world, eternally escapes you. Here we are, you and I, walking about in this magic garden, this Finnish forest that almost baffles description. All our lives we shall never see anything more beautiful. And you can’t see the pink edges of the frozen waterfall, over there by the stream! You are blind to the Japanese chiseling of the weeping willow leaning over the waterfall. The red trunks of the pines are covered by snow in which a thousand sparks are gleaming. The snow, shapeless when it fell, has draped itself along the branches, lying on their surfaces that undulate like a line drawn by Leonardo. In the snow flaming clouds are reflected. And think what you’d have to say about Fröken Kirsti’s silk stockings; about the line of her leg, that lovely line! I beseech you Alexander Fyodorovich, buy a pair of glasses!”
“My child,” he replied, “don’t waste your time. Forty copecks for spectacles are the only forty copecks I’ve no wish to squander. I don’t need your line, vulgar as truth is vulgar. You live your life as though you were a teacher of trigonometry, while I for my part live in a world of miracles, even when I’m only at Klyazma. What do I need to see Fröken Kirsti’s freckles for, if even when I can scarcely make her out I can see in her all I wish to see? What do I need Finnish clouds for, when above my head I see a moving ocean? What do I need line for, when I have color? To me the whole universe is a gigantic theater, and I am the only member of the audience who hasn’t glued opera glasses to his eyes. The orchestra is playing the overture to the third act; the stage is far away, just as in a dream; my heart swells with ecstasy. I see Juliet’s purple velvet, Romeo’s lilac silk, and not a single false beard. And you want me to blind myself with forty-copeck spectacles!”
- from "Line and Color"

Reading list: 3 titles

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

How to start: Akutagawa died young, committing suicide at 35 and ending a brilliant writing career. Today, a literary prize in Japan bears his name. An article in Japan Times gives further detail about his life and legacy.

Favourite passage: "Goi was a very plain-looking man. His hollow cheeks made his chin seem unusually long. His lips... if we mentioned his every striking feature, there would be no end. He was extremely homely and sloppy in appearance."

Tangential: Rashomon was made into a film in 1950 to great critical acclaim. Roger Ebert had a lot to say about it.

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

How to start: Barthelme is a postmodern writer and my appreciation for the genre amounts to the appreciation I have of Jelly Bellys for their transitory shock of flavour. If I don't understand most of his stories, his obituary in the New York Times makes me wish I did.

Favourite passage: "They sit down together. The pork with red cabbage steams before them. They speak quietly about the McKinley Administration, which is being revised by revisionist historians. The story ends. It was written for several reasons. Nine of them are secrets. The tenth is that one should never cease considering human love, which remains as grisly and golden as ever, no matter what is tattooed upon the warm tympanic page."

Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn

How to start: Mother's Milk is the fourth book in a series of five, that collectively form the Patrick Melrose Novels. In 2012 the series was published as a single volume.

Three favourite passages: "He was having (get it off your chest, dear, it'll do you good) a midlife crisis, and yet he wasn't, because a midlife crisis was a cliché, a verbal Tamazepam made to put an experience to sleep, and the experience he was having was still wide awake (...)."

"He struggled so hard to get away from his roles as a father and a husband, only to miss them the moment he succeeded. There was no better antidote to his enormous sense of futility than the enormous sense of purpose which his children brought to the most obviously futile tasks, such as pouring buckets of sea water into holes in the sand. Before he managed to break away from his family, he liked to imagine that once he was alone he would become an open field of attention, or a solitary observer training his binoculars on some rare species of insight usually obscured by the mass of obligations that swayed before him like a swarm of twittering starlings. In reality solitude generated its own roles, not based on duty but on hunger."

"Now she had an hour, perhaps two, in which to answer letters, pay her taxes, keep in touch with her friends, revive her intellect, take some exercise, read a good book, think of a brilliant money-making scheme, take up yoga, see an osteopath, go to the dentist and get some sleep. Sleep, remember sleep? The word had once referred to great haunches of unconsciousness, six, eight, nine-hour slabs; (...)."

Tangential: The New Yorker published an interview with the author in 2014, entitled "The Real Life of Edward St. Aubyn."

Design and the Loblaws applesauce jar

If interest in design could be measured in podcasts, mine would rate just a little above average, with shows like 99% Invisible, or Design Matters in my Stitcher app feed. A recent episode by TED Radio Hour, for example, featured an interview with computer engineer Tony Fadell, who offered satisfying anecdotes about Apple’s iPod design solutions. Design stories tend to give you a shiver of pleasure as they unroll a problem and offer a delicious solution. But design can also make you uncomfortable, because once you start to notice it, you start to categorize it. Living with bad design is what the TED Radio Hour podcast host Guy Roz calls “accepting design flaws”. His guest however, was hardly so passive. Mr. Faddell said, “we lose control to these things that are thrust upon us as opposed to wrenching control back [and saying] ‘I’m not going to do that anymore, we need to get this fixed.’” But I wonder who he’s addressing. Is it me, the lowly consumer? Or is it other designers? Or is it an elite I don’t belong to?

Take the No Name unsweetened applesauce sold by Loblaws. We buy a jar or two every week. It will be out on the counter during our weekend lunch, still cold from the fridge, and while I wait for my slice of bread to toast as the kids are eating at the table, I’ll take a spoon from the drawer, pick up the jar and reach in for a few heaping spoonfulls. The consistency is always just right, and the flavour is dependable. Years ago I tried making applesauce but my efforts would not compare, with exception to one luxurious variant.

About three years ago, Loblaw’s decided to change the design of the applesauce jar. It had previously been made of glass and held a larger amount of applesauce. The new design is made of plastic, and contains less. The issue is the design of the jar. Underneath the yellow “No Name” label, the plastic is ribbed, and the bottom is full of indents. It has since become impossible to clean out the jar with a spoon so that jars go to the recycling with applesauce still clinging to the sides.

I called the phone number provided on the jar twice. The first time was to make a complaint about the design. The representative on the other end of the line was sympathetic. I felt consoled to know that others had made similar complaints. I held on to a hope that an imaginary pile of complaints might cause a change in the design. A year later I called a second time to ask whether or not it was possible to know who made the jars. The representative checked and came back to me and said that there was no way of knowing because it was proprietary information. In the Loblaw Code of Conduct, it is written “disclosure of confidential Company information can seriously harm Loblaw.” I get that. I don’t want to hurt the makers of the applesauce that I like.

So then, what? My frustration with an applesauce jar is this trivial thing… You assume that the more you pay, the better a thing should work. A jar that costs two dollars is more about content than packaging, more about affordability than brand. The irony is that the applesauce jar causes food waste for the customers who least want to afford it.

Deathday

On the 30th it will have been three years since my dad died. I’ve tried to lend it meaning, staring out the window on a rainy afternoon earlier this week. I stared at the front lawn, the pair of oak trees with their wet rough green bark, the irises at their feet like a tangle of ribbons. The rain is light. Evidence of it falling is on the leaves that spring back in the release of the droplets that have gathered weight on the leaf fringe, bending the stalk. It’s on the cedar that wears the drops like pearls, reflecting sky. It’s in the puddle on the corner whose surface is drawn with circles that appear, grow and vanish like a frenetic screensaver.

Three years is nothing and everything.

On that morning I was breastfeeding my infant son and the phone rang and the palliative care nurse was looking for my brother because my dad was calling out for him. We hung in expectant suspension while the morning filled with waking children needs. My dad was leaving. Maybe right this minute, or this minute, the relatively brief agony was coming to an end. We’d scheduled a conference call for next Wednesday to discuss further steps in pain relief, but Pa left before that meeting as if to hurry up and not give us the inconvenience. He had always been considerate that way.

It’s been three years. That’s all.

Reading List: War and Peace

How To Start: Begin, if you like, by reading about how much someone else enjoyed reading War & Peace. For me it was Lucy. She wrote a blog post entitled: "Why Read War & Peace? The Reasons Why I Love Tolstoy's Masterpiece."

Five Favourite Passages: "Rostov, standing in the foremost ranks of Kitizov's army, which the Tsar approached first of all, was possessed by the feeling, common to every man in the army - a feeling of self-oblivion, of proud consciousness of their might and passionate devotion to the man who was the centre of that solemn ceremony.
"He felt that at one word from that man all that vast mass (and he, an insignificant atom bound up with it) would rush through fire and water, to crime, to death, or to the gradest heroism, and so he could not but thrill and tremble at the sight of the man who was the embodiment of that word." (p 271)

"Life meanwhile, the actual life of men with their real interests of health and sickness, labour and rest, with their interests of thought, science, poetry, music, love, affection, hatred, passion, went its way, as always, independently, apart from the political amity or enmity of Napoleon Bonaparte, and apart from all possible reforms." (p 470)

"He prayed with that feeling of passion and compunction with which men pray in moments of intense emotion die to trivial causes." (p 567)

"When a man sees an animal dying, horror comes over him. What he is himself - his essence, visibly before his eyes, perishes - ceases to exist. But when the dying creature is a man and a man dearly loved, then, besides the horror at the extinction of life, what is felt is a rending of the soul, a spiritual wound, which, like a physical wound, is sometimes mortal, sometimes healed, but always aches and shrinks from contact with the outer world, that sets it smarting.
"(...) Crushed in spirit, they closed their eyes under the menacing cloud of death that hovered about them, and dared not look life in the face. Carefully they guarded their open wounds from every rough and painful touch. Everything - the carriage driving along the street, the summons to dinner, the maid asking which dress to get out; worse still - words of faint, feigned sympathy - set the wound smarting, seemed an insult to it, and jarred on that needful silence in which both were trying to listen to the stern, terrible litany that had not yet died away in their ears, and to gaze into the mysterious, endless vistas that seemed for a moment to have been unveiled before them." (p 1224)

"The countess was by now over sixty. Her hair was completely grey, and she wore a cap that surrounded her whole face with a frill. Her face was wrinkled, her upper lip had sunk, and her eyes were dim.
"After the deaths of her son and her husband that had followed so quickly on one another, she had felt herself a creature accidentally forgotten in this world, with no object and no interest in life. She ate and drank, slept and lay awake, but she did not live. Life gave her no impressions. She wanted nothing from life but peace, and that peace she could find only in death. But until death came to her she had to go on living - that is, using her vital forces. There was in the highest degree noticeable in her what may be observed in very small children and in very old people. No external aim could be seen in her existence; all that could be seen was the need to exercise her various capacities and propensities. She had to eat, to sleep, to think, to talk, to weep, to work, to get angry, and so on, simply because she had a stomach, a brain, muscles, nerves, and spleen. (...)
"(...) Only rarely a mournful half-smile passed between Nikolay, Pierre, Natasha, and Countess Marya that betrayed their comprehension of her condition.
"But these glances said something else besides. They said that she had done her work in life already, that she was not all here in what was seen in her now, that they would all be the same, and that they were glad to give way to her, to restrain themselves for the sake of this poor creature, once so dear, once so full of life as they. Memento mori, said those glances.
"Only quite heartless and stupid people and little children failed to understand this, and held themselves aloof from her." (p 1325-7)

Tangential: The translation matters! David Remnik wrote a fascinating article for the New Yorker entitled, "The Translation Wars."

 

Thermea in the rain

You really should go to Thermea in the rain. You might think it’s a dreary day, your body might shudder with the thought of exposing skin, but I urge you, don’t listen to it. Instead, take your bathing suit, and rent a cotton robe, pay the fee and observe the hush, go in with your beloved and undress at your locker. It doesn’t matter if you’ve shaved or not, if your flabs feel flabby, or your belly distended from pizza, you’re not there to impress anyone. Put your flip flops on, take your towel, pass the bathrobe belt through the loops and meet your friend on the other side.

Find the steam room with the orange scent… it’s become a habit now, the place where you start, and sit on the slippery stone slab and notice the heat work its way in. It’s an osmosis operating on your skin. Notice how your head begins to sweat while you quickly forget your reluctance to come at all. The steam might hiss, and random drops fall, so now you can think of your breath and find a meditation in its steadiness.

Take the salt scrub afterwards, pretend you’re good at self-massage, notice how your feet appreciate it. Then wash it all away like a layer of sluff. Then, after all that, you might not be brave enough for the pool with the coldest water, maybe you’ll be fine with temperate instead. And if you followed the instructions like I said, it’s raining outside and it doesn’t matter, because your body is in a pool and your head is already wet. You’ll get to notice the greenery everywhere, the way the rain makes it a saturated colour, and the stones will shine with tones of pink and yellow, and maybe you’ll notice that grey speaker stone where the soft music floating in the air comes from.

You must also take in the Aufguss announced with the gong. They have their own mini soundtrack there in the sauna, and towel-wielding people dance while scent-infused snowballs sizzle and fill your nose and heat is manipulated to rush over your skin. Breathe it all in.

And now because you’re full of heat, you can tackle that coldest of pools, grit your teeth and wade all the way in. Your body is strong, you are so lucky. Revel in the shock of extremes.

You really should go when it rains because then when you sit awhile to relax, you can choose those vacant hammock chairs just under the eaves, and sway to the rhythm of that moment and gaze at the variety of green shapes. You can feel the air and see the wind, you can smell that fresh smell or else get the wafting of smoke from the fireplace. Hopefully, you’re fine enough just to be.

There’s another cycle left before you leave… You get to pick the variation on the theme. You get to duck in for another glass of Sacred Blend, one third chilled or else too hot. You can notice when you get impatient with the heat, or when you’d like to leave the cold for heat again and practice being fine with the present moment.

I’ve written all this, now and maybe you’ll want to go, but it’s better when you sign in without any expectation. You’ll probably feel softer skin afterward, you’ll probably notice your body more relaxed. But if I say it now, I don’t want you to look for it. I don’t want you to go waiting for the effect like a promise. And maybe it’s not possible to arrange to go when it’s raining without thunder, or when the drops are falling at a perfect amount in a nice downward slant. Maybe it’s winter, or fall, maybe there’s no green at all. But that shouldn’t deter you. In the winter, your body craves the warmth, and gradually expands to encompass it all, and you notice you’re not so afraid of the chill anymore… So go in winter too. Repeat the experience in every season with every variable, and you’ll soon see the comfort in routine, the way one aspect stands out and then how wonderful it is to have the body you have, the toes, the knees, the shape and the drape of your skin, and all of it there, wonderfully supporting a little you inside.

12 things I learned about the Renaissance

I’m working through a fourth year of university, taking one 3-credit class at a time. The Renaissance is the second class of the 10 I need to take to qualify for a Master’s Degree course in Canadian Studies. (This is a blog post about an essay I wrote for the first one.)

Here’s a list of random things I learned:

  1. The Catholic Church was undergoing a remarkable crisis. When Constantine granted its official status, it grew, however its growth caused some disruption as it struggled to find its place in government. People would argue about whether temporal or spiritual power came first and what it meant when it came to justice and territory. Eloquent texts are written with references to Bible passages and Church Father writings. These arguments got heated as monarchs in countries like France and England began to insist on their jurisdiction and nationhood. For example, the king of France (Philip the Fair) was so annoyed with Pope Boniface VIII’s claim that the papacy was above the monarchy (as he had written in Unam sanctam) that he attacked and imprisoned Boniface who then died shortly after.
  2. The conflict that had started between the king of France and the papacy lead to the next pope’s decision to leave Rome and establish papacy in Avignon where it stayed almost 70 years. Mystics like Catherine of Sienna were persistent in urging the pope to return to Rome.
  3. The Renaissance saw a slew of unusual popes. Some had numerous children, one was a warrior, but most had lavish taste and were responsible for the beautiful art and architecture that is Rome’s renown.
  4. The Plague of 1348, known as the Black Death, was terrible. Historians estimate a third of Europe’s population died, and in some areas, as high as half the population. Its effects scarred the minds of the people who lived through it.
  5. The Renaissance is regarded as a low period for science, the study of which had been cast aside in favor of subjects like history. This is something which made Galileo’s work stand out as a brilliant achievement.
  6. Italy in the Renaissance was a country of city-states. The most notable ones were those who prospered with the growth of trade, like Florence and Venice. Signs of their wealth were found in the investments made in art and architecture.
  7. My favorite city-state is Urbino because it was a tiny city-state with little in the way of natural ressources. Instead it had a brilliant and just leader named Federigo da Montefeltro who managed to make it prosper.
  8. Diplomacy was a new development and favored a new appreciation for rhetoric and fostered a renewed interest in ancient Roman and Greek writing. This movement was recognized and given the misleading name of Humanism.
  9. The Renaissance had the great artists most people know about, but was remarkable for being a period when, for the first time, artists were recognized on their own merit, having their own styles, and not just as anonymous “instruments” and manual laborers.
  10. The Hundred Years’ War lasted longer than 100 years (1347-1453). It started because the French kings wanted the English kings to cross the channel and pay homage to them for the land that they owned in France, like the duchy of Burgundy. This became onerous and humiliating for the English kings. They attacked France and won lots of battles at the beginning. France had a civil war in the midst of this.
  11. England and France both had to modify their government during this Hundred Years War period. England refined their Parliament and France centralized its power, weakening the authority of various dukes in order to strengthen the monarch’s.
  12. When the Hundred Years’ War ended, England had fallen into its own civil war. Each country however had a greater sense of nationalism that hadn’t existed in the Middle Ages.

I love history. The more I study it, the more I love it. I think I have a fascination for figuring out how things fit into context, how everything is more complicated on closer examination. The world is a product of a vast inheritance from centuries of suffering. Still, I’m an optimist.

The things that have informed my point of view on president-elect Trump

Last fall, I followed the American election more closely than I've followed some Canadian ones in the past. I was dismayed when Trump won, more than I expected, for a variety of reasons. In light of the presidential inauguration on January 20th, I thought I would gather the articles, podcasts and comedy sketches that informed my feelings about this American election. 

First of all, that Donald Trump might win seemed impossible, and John Oliver wanted to make sure listeners got the message. Hence the short-lived "Make Donald Drumpf Again" hashtag.

PBS Frontline made a two-hour documentary available online, and we watched it.

The podcast This American Life (episode 599: Seriously?) addressed the befuddling support Donald Trump was getting and investigated how the truth was getting distorted. They also addressed the american concern over immigration and the rift within the Republican party (episode 600: Will I Know Anyone at This Party?) and Hilary's problematic e-mail account (episode 601: Master of Her Domain... Name).

As the election drew near, even CBC got involved and hosted a Munk debate titled: Be it resolved, Donald Trump can make America great again, during which Jennifer Granholm makes a final argument against Trump "in the style of Dr. Seuss."

My sister sent along a short sketch featuring her favourite actor Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Tale of Election 2016".

Surely, Trump wouldn't win. But he did!

This American Life dealt with the deception in episode 602: The Sun Comes Up. And there were podcasts like Fresh Air for explanations. First: "How Trump Broke Campaign Norms But Still Won the Election" featuring a fascinating interview with James Fallows and a discussion about journalism. 

I broached the subject with some family friends and discovered that for many Catholics, Trump was given a vote on account of the Republican pro-life platform. Partisanship is one of those issues in the deep-end of the pool where I can't swim without floaters. I take issue with the person. I don't trust his words and his expressions are discouraging. But I learned something about smugness! Emmett Rensin wrote an article on Vox titled: "The smug style in American liberalism" and I felt properly humbled.

Clearly, there is a lot I don't understand about American feeling and American politics. My brother sent along a link to Dan Carlin's podcast, where Carlin explains how Hillary Clinton had been a poor choice of candidate.

John Oliver was not going to have any of those timid bits of optimism... His post-election show was all warnings and no reassurance. Fresh Air talked to a journalist about Trump's "Potential Conflicts of Interest" and how fake news was spread. Kottke started worrying about democracy in a blog post called "Is liberal democracy in trouble?"

Macleans featured a long-read titled "The rise of Donald Trump; The 10 moments that came to define the most ridiculous, unexpected and divisive political campaign in U.S. history"

There is no conclusion to this yet... I hope to acquire a Zen-like sense of perspective and listening to people like Malcolm Gladwell on the last episode of his first season of podcasts, helps. He talks about politics and the use and miss-use of satire. It's called The Satire Paradox. If I remember correctly, the point is that the audience member is supposed to shake off the torpor and stop laughing.

So long 2016

We're in the lovely fog of holidays where I've suddenly started sleeping in mornings, and trading exercise for Netflix in the evenings, although I argue it is to appreciate routine all the more when we return to it, Monday, January 9th, 2017.

If you like New Years Resolutions, my favourite source of inspiration is Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project blog. On her podcast she's invited listeners to post a picture to Instagram everyday in January, of things that make them happier. I intend to join, and whether I've already started planning what I'll post and composing the accompanying sentences, I'll not say. (#happier2017)

I like Year-in-Pictures collections, and this one's from Macleans.

For all the bad things that have happened in 2016, here is a list of good things! (via)

My mother has written a book on parenting, a short and informative read, in a conversational style I recognize as if I heard her sitting across from me on the couch. It's a pretty succinct narrative of the way we were raised. I imagine the chaser to be something like this.

Happy New Year!

 

News portfolio

This idea comes from Kottke, who wrote a blog post on December 13th, quoting David Cain who said "Curate your own portfolio. You can get better information about the world from deeper sources, who took more than a half-day to put it together." And from Gretchen Rubin who interviewed Michelle Gielan who said: "I realized there was a better way to broadcast the news that empowered people to believe they could overcome challenges."

I think urban development is fascinating and enjoyed "The Future of Cities" video. (via)

This ties in with an article from earlier this year full of good ideas: 101 Small Ways You Can Improve Your City. (via)

And this is a podcast about the unique design of Salt Lake City by 99% Invisible, titled Plat of Zion.

With the recent news of a new face on Canada's 10$ banknote, '83 to Infinity writes how Viola Desmond's story is different from the one more commonly heard about Rosa Parks.

And because I understand very little of the crisis in Syria, I appreciated this short video by Vox. (via)

***

There are so many brilliant gift guides, like on Cup of Jo, or The Kid Should See This, or Kottke, that I feel like it would be fun to produce one for all the things available in French in Winnipeg for kids. I'm out of time for 2016, but perhaps 2017? Pictures like this one on Instagram make me want to support and encourage small businesses all the more! 

Winnipeg gift guides that already exist include: Tiny Feast, Winnipeg Mom, and Style Hunter Fox.

Please don't trample my heart

You see, the thing is, the less you do, the less you feel like doing. The moment I stop writing is the very moment paralysis begins. When I’m head in the books, like I was this summer, biking to university and reading and taking notes, my mind was full of thoughts and ideas and I ran about like someone with a basket trying to catch them all. I felt alive.

I’ve read Rufi Thorpe’s essay twice. The first time, it was a relief to recognize myself in the servitude of motherhood. How often I have felt this way. The second time, more recently, I was happy to find in its conclusion the word ‘worthwhile’. Here is this giant tension between art and motherhood, between selfishness and selflessness and I have not escaped. Instead, here I am, so lucky to feel it, to know it, to read women who put a name to it.

No one likes being forced to go slowly, to hold back, to be trained in patience and steadiness. Today I face the tyranny of toddlers who dictate the morning walk, or the trip to a park, and I abandon wish list to-dos, I consciously let go. Being at home is not a bad job. My bosses don’t berate me. The stress is slight and self-imposed. I could go on finding productivity in shopping sales, chopping ingredients, and hopping around, but I soon miss the quiet development of thought. I start to daydream of an empty house, me and a cat, an end of day meal, a materialized husband, and an uninterrupted conversation. For now, all I have are small packets of time like islands of respite upon which I build stories and good habits by the sliver. The days and the course through them don’t change much, but I figure that this is exactly the lesson I need right now. It is slow and the repeated efforts are incremental but already I can see that when I look back the view has changed.

Reading

Near summer’s end, I read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, drawn to the book because of quotes on the subject of agriculture here. It was a fascinating read! Here are a few things that stuck with me.

On pages 90-91, Harari talks about Gobekli Tepe an archaeological site dating from 9500 B.C. from pre-agricultural societies. He posits that a common belief enabled the cooperation of Neolithic peoples and that villages grew around this site later, and furthermore, that the initial domestication of wheat 30 kilometres away wasn’t a coincidence but the natural development of people coming and living together. This is contrary to the assumption of the hunter-gatherer, then agriculture then religion order you might assume. But the book is full of these idea reversals and that is what makes it an invigorating read.

This is what Harari has to say about capitalism:

/…/ Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver, or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity.

It may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted. We hear variations on this theme every day in the news. Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism.

Inevitably I think of Trump, most especially during the first debate. But Harari goes on to compare capitalism to a force stronger than religion.

Christians and Muslims who could not agree on religious beliefs could nevertheless agree on a monetary belief, because whereas religion asks us to believe in something, money asks us to believe that other people believe in something. (p 185)

Or perhaps, more to the point, Harari compares capitalism to the most compelling religion ever invented:

The capitalist-consumerist ethic is revolutionary in another respect. Most previous ethical systems presented people with a pretty tough deal. They were promised paradise, but only if they cultivated compassion and tolerance, overcame craving and anger, and restrained their selfish interests. This was too tough for most. The history of ethics is a sad tale of wonderful ideals that nobody can live up to. Most Christians did not imitate Christ, most Buddhists failed to follow Buddha, and most Confucians would have caused Conficius a temper tantrum.

In contrast, most people today successfully live up to the capitalist-consumerist ideal. The new ethic promises paradise on condition that the rich remain greedy and spend their time making more money, and that the masses give free reign to their cravings and passions – and buy more and more. This is the first religion in history whose followers actually do what they are asked to do. How, though, do we know that we’ll really get paradise in return? We’ve seen it on television. (p 349)

He explained the way modern science isn’t just about technology but that it “differs from all previous traditions of knowledge in three critical ways: the willingness to admit ignorance, the centrality of observation and mathematics, and the acquisition of new powers.” (p. 250-251)

One chapter has a lyrical conclusion:

We may conclude by saying that we are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of the one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

And then there’s this fascinating discussion about happiness, its only-recent study and its meaning in history:

The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness. If happiness depended only on objective conditions such as wealth, health and social relations, it would have been relatively easy to investigate in history. The finding that it depends on subjective expectations makes the task of historians far harder. We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors did.

It’s hard to accept this line of thinking. The problem is a fallacy of reasoning embedded deep in our psyches. When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end, and hardly ever changed their clothes. The very thought of living like that, filthy and reeking to the bone, is abhorrent to us. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and smell of a long-unlaundered shirt. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it – they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content. […]

… our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?

Harari is fun to read because he acknowledges questions, answers them or else tells you why there isn’t an answer yet. Reading Sapiens makes you feel like you have a falcon’s eye over centuries of human development.

What I've learned about wheat so far...

I wrote an essay about wheat and here’s what I learned:

  1. First, the wheat plant is self-pollinating and cross-breeding requires separating anthers and pistils. There are three main types of wheat; winter wheat, spring wheat and durum. The last two are what are mostly grown in the prairie provinces while winter wheat is mostly grown in Europe. Durum is used for pasta and has fewer chromosomes than the other two bread-making wheats. It also seems as if durum was always just durum; whereas spring wheat has all kinds of varieties. 
  2. The development of new wheat varieties is interesting because, in the beginning, it was a pretty basic cross-breeding program. Successful wheat crops in Manitoba began with Red Fife which had been grown by a farmer in Ontario. The official effort to create new varieties began in 1886 with the institution of Experimental Farms whose goal was to create varieties that ripened earlier. The first success was Marquis wheat, the result of a cross between Red Fife and a variety of wheat from the Himalayas called Hard Red Calcutta. It ripened days earlier than Red Fife and produced beautiful bread. In a book published in 1918 called Essays on Wheat, its discovery was described with a lot of optimism.
  3. Cross-breeding became important for rust-resistance. Rust would evolve and attack the wheat stems or leaves to the point that some years it was described as an epidemic. New rust-resistant cultivars in Manitoba included Thatcher in the 1930’s and Selkirk in the 1950’s. But that’s where I stopped looking at wheat agronomy and so I know relatively little about hybrid wheat, heritage varieties and genetically-modified wheat. I also suspect that climate change has had an effect on the amount of spring wheat Canada produces and I would like to know more about it.
  4. I love the early stories about wheat being sown in Manitoba. First efforts were made by the Selkirk settlers. The prairies had been used for hunting and trapping so it wasn’t even a sure-thing that the land could produce wheat. The other thing was that the first settlers weren’t even farmers… they were mostly fishermen and they didn’t have good tools at their disposal; one account says they only had a hoe. Grain came from England. Early crops often failed for a variety of reasons, but the most interesting ones sound like Biblical plagues; flocks of passenger pigeons, clouds of locusts, an outbreak of mice, and flooding. Everything was so wild!
  5. I get surprised about how much daily life is influenced by the economy. In my childhood bubble the world was run by values and money was a source of frustration. But successful crops of wheat were needed to expand development and development expanded when there were good crops. The railway is an example. The first railroad connected Winnipeg to St. Paul Minnesota and this encouraged trade with the United States. A railroad connecting Manitoba to the Great Lakes later opened the market to Great Britain.
  6. I learned about the Canadian Wheat Board. The brief story is this: It was first put into place for a short time in 1919 and the idea came from Australia who had a similar model in 1915. The government control was meant to be temporary and so it lasted only a year. Farmers wanted it to be re-instituted in the 1920’s and this gave way to the provincial Pools. They worked in competition with private elevator companies and the Great Depression saw the end of the provincial Pools’ role in grain marketing. Prime Minister R. B. Bennett re-instituted the Wheat Board in 1935 and it was based on voluntary participation (like in 1919). Mackenzie King was re-elected in 1935 and his Liberal government realized that it was necessary to make it compulsory. So the Canadian Wheat Board became the single-desk marketer of wheat in Canada in 1943. Its role continued until legislation was passed in 2011 making it voluntary again.
  7. The Canadian Wheat Board was Canada’s unique response to wheat marketing and differed from the way the United States marketed wheat. It was a necessary difference however, because Canada depended more on wheat exports than did the United States and couldn’t afford the subsidies the Americans put in place. My course was based on the relationship between Canada and the United States and so looking into the marketing of wheat I got to see just how competitive it could be… As much as some of the American wheat subsidy programs were causes of complaint for Canadian farmers (like the Public Law 480 program under Eisenhower), the Americans often viewed the Canadian Wheat Board with suspicion. 

I’m not done studying wheat, but for now this was the result of a few weeks of reading and note-taking. I want to know more about agronomy and how wheat compares to other grain crops. I only barely understand the marketing basics of wheat futures and what hedging means and realize economics are not my forte. I want to read more about the history of grain elevators, line elevator companies, milling, farm technology, farm practices, prime ministers and the wheat board. I got good marks on the essay even though it could have been more tightly focused. I get excited when my reading starts to connect to the lives of the farmers in my family. It a small way, books bridge the gap between generations and help me better understand my pet project in Aubigny.

Bit of lit

This wonderful quote comes from the book American Pastoral by Philip Roth. 

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that – well, lucky you.

 

A trio of happy birth stories

When it comes to relating how your offspring entered the world, few people will sit in rapt attention as you describe the gooey details. But these stories comforted me when I was pregnant and mark milestones in my life.

The first – Marie-Hélène. My husband and I were four years married when I decided to attend university full time and work part time. We were having trouble conceiving and had had a miscarriage two years prior. As if studies excited my fertility, I immediately fell pregnant in September and finished the school year with a big belly. This first full-term pregnancy felt like an adventure where my attention was constantly drawn inwards, as if my body had become an artist’s studio and I wasn’t the artist. I was busy and active and constantly fighting the urge to nap, only to wake up in the middle of a class trying to still look attentive, panicked that I might have drooled onto my notebook. 

Christian and I attended the recommended pre-natal classes and as labour loomed ahead of me, I was counting on getting an epidural, if only because I had no idea what to expect for pain, and panicked at the thought of trying to manage it on my own. Labour started on a perfect summer day. I’d had my last day at work and Christian was having his last day at school with a staff party scheduled that evening. I was sitting in the sun on a porch swing when the first gentle contraction came. I walked around the garden, packed a bag, and then when my brother, who rented a suite downstairs from us, came home; he was enthusiastic about the news and helped distract me with a movie. I called Christian before the end of his staff party because I was excited. It had been over an hour of contractions five minutes apart. We went to the hospital that evening and I was only barely dilated. The nurse sent me home to dilate more. This involved a hot bath, lying down, and fist-clenched wishes that pelted themselves against this giant pain that kept advancing. At four in the morning, I was miserable and so we went back to the hospital. The nurse estimated dilation at four centimetres and said “good work mum”. I was admitted to a room where my water broke as I was sitting on a pink exercise ball at the foot of the delivery bed. I requested the epidural and Christian got to see its lovely effects when I relaxed enough to take a short nap.

Saint-Boniface Hospital, where I was admitted for all three babies, is a teaching hospital so that nurses and doctors file in and out of patients' rooms regularly. In and out through contractions and labour that intensified as the sun rose and pushing began. Pushing lasted two hours. Our daughter was born at eleven that day, tiny and delicate with a head like a peony bud. She hardly cried and instead opened her eyes and looked around as if already intently curious. The medical staff called it a textbook delivery.

Magical moment: When we’d attended the pre-natal classes, the nurse encouraged us to touch the baby’s head as it was crowning during delivery. We did, Christian guiding my hand, and it was just as special as the nurse had promised. For a moment the room and the people in it and the discomfort of the situation dissolved and I felt my daughter separate from me who had housed her all this time, her movements inside, now on the very brink of being outside.

Lesson learned: No matter the preparation you think you have done, there is nothing to compare to the overwhelm of having an infant at home for the first time. Christian and I briefly mourned our previous life as a carefree couple and then saw each other through an intense summer of learning to care for a baby. 

The second - Cedric. Christian and I were anxious to provide a sibling for our little girl and in the four years that separate our daughter and son, we had three miscarriages. (You can read more about the miscarriages here.) At numerous points during the first trimester we were certain this would be another miscarriage, but the pregnancy continued to progress and I brought to term an active, pointy-elbowed little fish. 

In my final appointments with the gynaecologist our boy was persistently head up. A c-section was scheduled on a day that happened to be our wedding anniversary. When we arrived at the hospital the doctor performed a final ultra-sound only to see that Cedric had done a flip and was now properly head-down. We were sent home to await a natural birth. This was a surprise and every day of waiting was hard. I felt unprepared for a natural delivery, made a dash for the bookstore where I picked up Birthing From Within and hired a doula. 

It turned out to be a hard and long labour that stalled more than once. The nurse set up an oxcytocin drip and kept increasing the dosage. The attending doctor, my own gynaecologist, decided to pierce the bag of waters and we all had a moment’s divertissement when more towels had to be fetched to catch all the water. Still our boy delayed. In the last hours of labour I took Fentanol, a drug that helped numb the fear of an endless labour. Pushing lasted only fifteen minutes and Cedric was immediately plopped onto my belly for his first feed. Of average size and weight, Cedric was a cuddly baby. He happened to be born on the same day as Prince George, at seven in the evening. Later on the nurse showed us the placenta, examining it with gloved hands, stretching it out like a frog’s throat, and remarking that it had a double membrane. Cedric had lots of mucus at first, but we were quickly discharged to our little home as a family of four.

Magic moment: At one point during the long labour, I was lying on the bed and wondered aloud to the nurse what the urge to push felt like. A little later when a resident was about to check the dilation, I had a contraction and as if a switch had been flipped, the urge to push arrived. It became a capital letter expression in my head.

Lesson learned: Doulas are a good thing, but if I were to navigate the experience again, I would make sure we were a better match. My doula was lovely and no doubt well-intentioned, but our personalities were very different. The short time I’d had to secure her services was a disadvantage.

The third - William. Life was pretty smooth with a boy and a girl. “This is easy” we thought… So we started discussing a third. The pros and the cons, feelings, desires, expectations, and right there in the middle of the discussions, in the middle of days when I’d waver back and forth between what we knew and what we didn’t, ease and unease, I fell pregnant. And the pregnancy stuck. I ballooned to massive proportions and hoped that this baby would be fat and healthy. It was in this third pregnancy that I finally, finally realized that I could avoid feeling awful in the morning if I abstained from cereal and toast and took eggs and fruit instead. As I entered the third trimester, I started thinking about delivery, panicking, really. I found a set of CDs by Belleruth Naparsteck called “Meditations to Support a Healthy Pregnancy & Successful Childbirth” and listened to it at least once a day, waddling around the block, or sitting and napping, or at night before bed. I think she helped to calm my mind, to wrap me up in comfort when my head wanted to separate between two feelings; the insatiable desire for sympathy and the frustration of being a woman not any different from all the other child-bearing women. 

William’s labour stretched out for days. I’d be fine during the day, then night would come and contractions would start. I’d time them, hope for a steady pace, then an increase in pace, but they would taper off, or come only in spurts, and the night would go by while I was uncomfortable and impatient. I visited the hospital early on, but there had been hardly any dilation at all. Finally, on the third night of this, the kids already sleeping at their grandparents’, the contractions came on strong and immobilizing. At the hospital, one of the nurses noticed during an examination that our baby wasn’t head down, and went to find an ultra-sound machine to confirm this. A doctor was called and between contractions we discussed options. This was an exciting and completely unexpected twist, and since the doctor was confident about performing a natural delivery, that is what we chose to do. It might not have been a choice had I not already delivered two other babies naturally.

Nonetheless it was considered a risky delivery and so I was prepped in case a Caesarean was needed. I was administered an epidural and eventually wheeled into an operating room. Pushing took about forty-five minutes, slowed because of the epidural which also deprived me of the urge to push. Christian was with me the whole time and would take peeks at the baby’s progress. Natural delivery of a baby who wasn’t head down garnered a crowd of medical personnel. My legs had been tied up and out of the way and hurt for months afterwards. When only the head remained to be delivered, the main doctor took on a seriousness and concentration that hushed the room. I was given a fantastic episiotomy and I felt the forceps go in as if the doctor had taken a soup ladle and cupped the baby’s head and pulled him through. I was sewn and congratulated and the room drained of personnel while Christian went over to look at our son, all purple and fat and lying stomach down on a warming bed. 

Magical moment: After I was wheeled into recovery, the nurse came and brought me back William. He had been whimpering constantly and she thought he must want me, so she recommended I nurse him skin to skin. He nursed nearly an hour, steady, gentle, quiet… those moments like a dream while Christian went off to find us both breakfast. 

Lesson learned: Recovery had been a breeze for Marie-Hélène and Cédric, but it was significantly less breezy with William. For the first few days back home, I had so much fluid in my body that the tops of my feet giggled when I walked, and for two nights I snored to such a great extent, Christian bought himself earplugs. The episiotomy also needed special care and I regularly had to take sitz baths for relief. 

So there’s the happy trio! I am grateful for each one…

 

Thank-you notes

Dear Gabrielle Blair (Design Mom)

I’ve been following the blog for a modest five years or so and I wanted to tell you that I’ve always appreciated your voice on the blog.  I’ve always appreciate the Living With Kids feature and some still stand out in my mind. I remember reading Laura Hall’s comment in 2013 when she wrote “motherhood, though… that’s hit me like a double decker bus” and finding such comfort in it after a hard day. We still have toddlers in our house but I’m now beginning to feel as if the hardest adjustments have been made and we are gathering the happy moments now. I reflect on the questions you ask your readers and applaud you for sharing them. I appreciate the crafts you post, the recipes too, and your own thoughts on beauty and clothing. We’ve started to take pictures of school outfits last year when our girl was going in to grade one. If it does indeed take a village to raise a child, I just want to say that I’m delighted to count you among my online village acquaintances I can trust!

Dear Stephanie (NieNie Dialogues) 

I’ve been following your blog for a few years now, and can’t unsubscribe because I feel like having news from you is like holding you in my heart. Reading your blog posts satisfies a gentle curiosity about life in Utah and provides me with the chance to empathize with someone who’s life’s journey is different than my own. Sometimes that’s all the encouragement I need, to know that we’re travelling together on this road, both mothers, both in love with men named Christian. Thank you for blogging. I continue to wish you and yours the very best,
    
Dear Maggie (Mighty Girl) 

I found your blog in the extreme boredom of a desk job that required mostly my pretty face and happy voice. I’ve followed you ever since, through product recommendations, book quotes, life lists and life changes and I don’t know anyone who has such consistently perky writing. It’s always a delight to read you, no matter what you write about. Cheers!
    
Dear Heather (Dooce) 

Reading you for the past number of years was like having that one rebel friend that made you cooler just by association. Between the sarcasm and the heart-rending confessions, I got to learn a little how hard it must be to have the internet as boss and supervisor. Thanks for the laughs, thanks for the tears, thanks for the truth in your words.

Dear Elan Morgan (Schmutzie)

I’ve been following your blog on and off since 2009 when I found you thanks to an article in the Globe and Mail. Sometimes I would think we had little in common other than our province of origin, but I’ve since come to appreciate you for being you. I like knowing that you are muddling through the day to day like me. Your finding grace helps me find grace too and I further appreciate the creative way you do so. Sometimes I think of you the way Francine Prose describes Beckett… She uses Beckett to describe “how much authority he achieves in the process of telling us about confusion and doubt” how he manages to do so with humour and how Beckett, by necessity, must have had to get over the worry about what his mom might think if they read his stories. Now I’m not saying you are like Beckett because I haven’t even read his books yet, but rather that I notice that thanks to your writing, I’ve learned to appreciate the grittiness in life. I don’t usually care for gritty things because I’m a romantic-comedy kind of person, but you write from a place of truth and there’s such value in that. Thank-you. Thank-you also for the Five-Star Fridays and the Five-Star Mixtapes. 


Dear Tina (Swissmiss) 

It’s a treat reading your blog. There’s always something to make me smile or inspire me to better work. I appreciate the links you post that make me feel like I’m a little more in the know here in Winnipeg where winters are long. Thanks for sharing your discerning eye with me. Thanks also for Tattly… it helped me connect with my niece last summer. All the best,

Dear Jason (Kottke) 

Thank-you for your blog. I can so often credit you for finding interesting long reads, for coming across Ferrante’s fiction, for having a more educated view of the issues in the United States in general. A few years ago when my brother rented a room in our house, we started recognizing each other’s topics of conversation and thought it was amusing when we discovered we were both reading your blog. Thanks for keeping me connected to all things cool!

Scene from life with toddlers

In the list of qualifiers that could apply to parenting none seem to capture the non-stop minutiae. The word would have to fit in the gap between little urgencies and the grace-note-filled upward spiral of intermittent progress.

Right now, we have toddlers. Cedric is two and a half and William is one and a half. They’re learning to share – a skill that takes a lot of narration on my part because William has no words. A typical scene goes something like this: there is a toy. Most of the time, the toy is Cedric’s. He plays with it because it’s his idea and William is his audience. Then, maybe he wanders off with a new idea, like an adult, but too young to have the furrowed brow. William who is tired of being audience musters all the speed he can and captures the toy. Cedric notices, sometimes right away, sometimes later, and he defaults to loud protest. I decide whether or not to mediate.

This time, the toy is a wooden truck with detachable parts, screws and nails and tools. The sun is pouring through the window, refracted off banks of snow outside. I subdue Cedric and rock him on the chair, calming his intensity, breathing in the smell of his hair, grabbing it like a fistful of straw. 

“It’s William’s turn, I know it’s your toy, but we have to share, it’s his turn, just a little while longer, just wait while he plays, I know… but we take turns…” 

He’s still protesting, more quietly, still insistently, like someone who exchanges a sledgehammer for a rubber mallet, still knocking, knocking, knocking.

I’m answering a text from my sister. We’re working on a project together and I’m excited about it, my attention is divided between this project and my professional motherhood. There is knocking… Cedric is still knocking, a rubber mallet to my brain, 

“It’s my truck!” he complains in litany form. 

I lose patience. I declare a time-out. I get up and sit him in the hallway, on the shiny dented honey hardwood floor, and punch in two minutes on the microwave.

I return to the living room and William’s diaper needs to be changed. It’s reflexive. I gather him up and we pass Cedric on the way to the bedroom where I tackle the smell in a flurry of wipes. The microwave sounds, the minutes are up and so I call Cedric to the bedroom and we reconcile our differences. He leaves me to the buttons on William’s suit and finds the chalkboard in his sister’s room. William, clean and free, joins him. 

It’s all forgot, like a string unknot and I bless the silence and resume the phone. I hear the scratching of chalk. Scratch, scratch, scratch, it fades into a quiet hum, but then there’s a crunch, and another one. I hold on to the hum, I don’t want to let it go… A few minutes later William comes to me, his stiff toddler legs belly-propelled… His mouth is dribbling yellow chalk. The crunch of yellow chalk was the price of the hum.

I know how fleeting the days are, the interminable ones I live and forget. I’ll soon reach a point when I’ve forgotten the adorable and the annoying parts of toddlerhood with only a brief glimpse like a buried memory coming to surface when I’ll feel heartbroken for a moment. But my present self is always telling my future self to relax, that I really am doing the best I can right now, no regrets. This crazy time with every minute accounted for, the boredom and the urgency pulling at two ends of me. It’s made me expand – like the Incredibles, I’m becoming the elastic mom. 

 

Three things three kids have taught me about décor

Years ago, when I read a short biography about Diana Vreeland, one of her quotes devastated me. She wrote: “Of course, one is born with good taste. It’s very hard to acquire. You can acquire the patina of taste.” Perhaps she was being snobbish, I thought. Or perhaps I was being optimistic. I like to think that anything can be within reach, even good taste. 
    I learned that Seth Godin has a great cookbook collection*. He says books are a bargain because “for fifteen or twenty dollars you have something that might change your life.” Some people are bad at cooking he argues, because while “it costs very little to find out, lots of people are afraid to find out.”
    The thing is, fear applies to decorating too! I remember when I was expecting our little girl, I was stressed that the room wouldn’t be magazine-picture ready for her. I printed pictures off the internet (this before the delightful Pinterest!) and hoped I would find myself infused with style wisdom. I wasn’t though… We painted the walls yellow and hung wallpaper, and fitted a white crib with a plain pink mattress cover. At my request, my friend brought a sheepskin rug from Toronto for a carpet and we borrowed a glider because it was within reach. I discovered that I didn’t like yellow, that sheepskin is tough to clean when baby throws up on it, and that gliders are wonderfully comfortable even before the baby arrives. You see, there’s nothing like experience and the only way to get experience is to take risks.
    Taste is formed in part through exposure** and that’s the perfect excuse to indulge in the impulse to scroll through blogs and ogle over pretty Pinterest boards. Books provide the commentary that allow you to notice details you might not have, the chance to understand the components of the author’s vision. 
    Taste is also re-invention. When I was little, I used to think that a perfectly decorated room was the ideal you reached after enough purchases. But it’s not so. Décor is the pleasing expression of a practical way to use a space; but the way you use a space takes time to find out. Uses change and evolve. As I write I have toddler boys, born a year and three weeks apart, who endlessly test the endurance of every decor decision in my house.  The hardwood floors are suffering… But I can credit them for causing me to streamline the de-cluttering. While I would like to put something pretty on the coffee table, or even on my bedside table, I know more about décor than I did as a newlywed.
    This is my advice:
1.    Tackle it! Have a vision, daydream, make a plan, create a budget and go! No excuses! No “I’ll wait until the kids are older to make my house pretty.” Make your home in the now, even just a little bit at a time.
2.    Learn from it! Emily Henderson says there are no hard-and-fast rules, just “tons of tricks and tips” and she’s right! Points of view abound from one book to the other, but eventually you find out what you appreciate. Every experiment builds confidence.
3.    Have fun with it! Having children is the best excuse to decorate, to explore colour, pattern and texture, to build projects and take them down. This is your kingdom and you are queen of your castle!

* Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show (February 10, 2016) 
** This article: http://davidlewis.svbtle.com/can-taste-be-taught

I love books! Here are some of my favourite books about décor in no particular order:
Design Sponge by Grace Bonney
Big Book of Small Cool Spaces by Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan
Domino The Book of Decorating by Debora Needleman, Sara Ruffin Costello and Dara Caponigro
The Perfectly Imperfect Home by Debora Needleman
Design Mom by Gabrielle Blair
Styled by Emily Henderson
The IKEA catalogue... :)

Scratching sound

It was fall in Winnipeg, full of the delicious anticipation of the first snow and the rich smells of summer’s decay and there was a scratching sound in our wall. I’d heard it for the first time one morning during meditation. It was downstairs in the little room beneath the stairs. Our house is split and so our basement sits higher up and has large windows. All the exterior walls have a ledge two-thirds of the wall’s height because of the way the foundation was made. The scratching was in one of those spaces between the cement and the interior wall.    

When I mentioned that I heard a scratching sound to Christian, he dismissed it. So I tried to ignore what I thought I heard, even though, when I’d duck my head into that space which was cooler than the other spaces in our house, where we kept our potatoes and onions, suitcases and children’s toys, I’d keep an eye out for a mouse, or maybe a squirrel. But there was never any evidence of mice, or bugs. And then I would still hear the scratching sometimes.

One night, almost a week later, Christian heard the scratching. I had paused the television in the middle of the commentary following Justin Trudeau’s win. When I came back, the under-stairs light was on, and Christian was standing leaning toward the wall. 
    “You hear it?” I said.
    “Yes!” he answered.
    “What is it?” I asked.
    “I don’t know,” he said.
    “What are you gonna do?” I asked.
    “I don’t know,” he paused, “how did it get there, I wonder.” 
    It would seem that only a thin piece of drywall was separating us from this scratching source and neither of us felt like taking it down, tearing right through to see.
    So he turned off the light and I continued to watch the political commentary. 
    Before bed that night, I asked what he planned to do.
    “I don’t know.” He said.

I’ve grown asepticized to close encounters with wild life. We didn’t have any family pets besides the beta fish. Once, when I was washing my hair I came across a protuberance on my scalp and squeezed it off and as I found its round bead shape carried off in a stream of water I saw its six little legs confirm an innocent suspicion before it disappeared down the drain. The panicked surge of disgust mimicked anger and I punched the flimsy shower stall wall because it was the only thing I could think of doing. It wasn’t dissimilar to the time that I found myself weeding a space in the front yard, still an elementary school student when I unwittingly ended a small caterpillar’s life in a firm pinch. I sprang up from my crouched position and shook my arms until I was calm enough to think of washing my fingers. More recently, when fishing out tools and pails from an under-deck area in the backyard, I came across a drowned, bloated mouse. The scene was like the one in Anne of Green Gables when a slimy mouse is discovered at the bottom of a custard pot. I confess I was far less adroit at getting rid of the mouse than young Anne, even though my daughter was watching and I couldn’t give in to yelling, or shaking, or punching walls.
In the increasingly intermittent scratching sounds in the wall, I could imagine a small animal in distress, slowly dying, drying up, clawing around hopelessly surrounded by pink insulation. Maybe it fell through a crack in our foundation but we couldn’t check because that area was a corner under our front patio. Undoing a bunch of two by fours to get a good view felt like a lot of effort for a scratching sound. 

But what if it was some poor animal? It was that kind of thing that mixes pity and fear together so that the tug of war between the two leads to nothing. You stand there and do nothing because making a hole in the wall inside feels too close and inspecting a foundation outside feels too laborious.  
    “How long have you heard it?” Christian asked me.
    “A week?” I answer.
    He says his parents would sometimes hear scratching in the walls in their house and his dad would go up into the attic and drop poison into the walls and then the scratching would stop. I’m discomfited by the way having a dead rodent stuck in the wall is just fine, as if all walls everywhere would have the dried up, mummified remains of some un wary creatures. 

That was the conclusion, that our wall certainly had something dead in it. I was re-reading my work and read the first sentence to Christian who laughed at the memory. He said:
    “It’s gone away, eh, whatever it was.”
    I said that that wasn’t the conclusion I’d drawn. I said I thought the whatever-it-was was dead. 
    “No!” he said “If it was dead, it would have smelled!”
    I said I had no time to re-work the conclusion.

 

Matchmaker at large

So we’re at this wedding. We’re celebrating this couple, reminiscent of our own wedding ten years ago last summer. And we meet this guy. He’s really nice. I look at him with all the benevolence of a happily married person. He’s really smart. He has a PhD and works with computers. He might be a nerd, except he’s not the sitting-at-your desk kind geeking out about obscure films, he’s the kind of nerd with an awkward intelligence. He’s single. Christian and I go home and I’m depressed that he’s single.

She’s single too, this other friend of mine.

Maybe they could work together. Maybe I should alert someone. Maybe I should play matchmaker. 

Or not. They’re a bit different. Maybe a person with a PhD can’t relate a lot to a social worker. What was I thinking.

Maybe I’m getting old. Maybe I’m becoming like those widowed old ladies who can’t stand to see people staying single. Those widowed old women who clasp your arm in a mix of affection and control and say, too close to your face, how beautiful your children are. 

But what if there was a chance? What if I was the element that was needed to trigger their getting together? What if it could work? What if these two people could come together, provinces be damned, and find similarities? Some couples are made up with seemingly opposite people. And what if holding back I was denying their chance at a happily-ever-after? And then one day at their wedding they would give a speech and say “Thanks Jacinta for this set-up that lead to our day today”. And the guests would applaud and I would blush, and kids would follow, and he would think he was so lucky to have her and she would think she was so lucky to have him. Maybe it could work, right?

Never mind. I didn’t say anything, don’t say anything. 

*Disclaimer: while the feeling is based on truth the details in this post have been all made up.