Things I don't get around to writing

  1. I have a job doing research. I love it because I learn lots of random facts, and sometimes, for the space of a research paper, or a chapter, I get immersed in another world. Take for example the creation of the Catholic diocese of Winnipeg. Right now, it doesn’t feel like all that big of a deal. But in 1915, when it happened, it was in the tense atmosphere of Irish Catholics demanding more attention, a loss of power and finance for the French Catholics and the first time that Rome acted so decisively in creating an independent diocese.

  2. Nellie McClung had no sympathy for the 1919 Winnipeg Strike. She visited the city, interviewed some strikers and took notes for an article she didn’t end up publishing. I wrote an essay proving that she was friends with J.S. Woodsworth but that they had very different views on the strike and the World War. Why didn’t McClung sympathize with the strikers? In part because she couldn’t understand how desperate their situation was, and in part because she came from a family of farmers. Authors have argued that the farmers and the workers on strike largely remained separate.

  3. I’m starting to enjoy newsletters as much as blog posts… The two that spur me on to write are Austin Kleon and Craig Mod.


I love year-end retrospectives, and so, joining in like a guest unafraid of water at a pool party, here’s mine!

I read about thirty books this year, some from a list of classics, including La Cousine Bette and Desperate Characters, and some specific self-help books including The Highly Sensitive Person, The Actor’s Life and The Business of Being a Writer. Some books went together, like Wuthering Heights and Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of the author. I got immersed in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in March but came up for air after the first two books and decided not to plunge back in. I stuck a toe in graphic novels, including Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Light reads included Theft by Finding and Brunch is Hell. Because I liked Carol Shield’s advice on writing, I read Stone Diaries. I liked Sally Mann’s book Hold Still, a choice influenced by Austin Kleon’s advice. University course subjects lead me to read Halfbreed by Maria Campbell and a collection of biographies on and writings by Nellie McClung. 

On a whim I like to take out cookbooks at the library. These included How to Cook a Wolf, Six Seasons, Love and Lemons, My Kitchen Year, and Repertoire. I follow a menu plan for the year that is flexible enough to allow for new recipes and improvements, like when Jessica Battaliana’s Pork Saltimbocca surpassed all previous Chicken Saltimbocca attempts. And we’d probably adopt Jeanine Donofrio’s Vegan Carrot Waffles forever were it not our son’s aversion to carrots even in their sneakiest form. Food 52’s Fasoolya Khadra was deceptively delicious. We also liked their Rosy Chicken paired with Joy of Cooking Baked Polenta. Another delight was Cauliflower Ragu from Six Seasons. I’ve upped my salad repertoire thanks to the New York Times list of 101 Simple Salads of which the in-season peaches and tomato salad is a tasty memory. An August brunch stands out for its Plum Poppy-Seed Muffins and Mushroom and Shallot Quiche. Deb Perelman is a go-to for so many good recipes. Marie-Hélène’s birthday supper request was her Everyday Meatballs with fresh pasta. The Ice Cream Cake Roll was an impressive birthday dessert. Fresh strawberries still make Strawberry Shortcake one of my favourite desserts. In the summer we make Tomato Corn Pie. Around Christian’s birthday, we look forward to Butter Chicken. His favourite dessert is an Apple Crisp without oatmeal in the topping.

Still-young children make for a lot of nights in, but we did try out The Mitchell Block, Passero, and Nuburger at the Common on dates out. On weekends we’ll make a treat of a drink and Netflix. After watching Mindhunter, Rectify, Charité, Halt and Catch Fire, Ozark, Better Call Saul, the rest of Suits and most of Fargo, we’re looking forward to new seasons! On regular television Life in Pieces makes us laugh the most. 

And you? Do you have any recommendations?


  • I’m a stay at home mom for the moment, and in this condition some things ring especially true. The beginning of Heidi Julavits The Folded Clock for one.

“Once, a day was long. It was bright and then it wasn’t, meals happened, and school happened, and sports practice, maybe, happened, and two days from this day there would be a test, or an English paper would be due, or there would be a party for which I’d been waiting, it would seem, for years. Days were ages. Love bloomed and died in a day. Rages flared and were forgotten and replaced by new rages, also forgotten. Within a day there were discernable hours, and clocks with hands that ticked out each new minute. I would think, Will this day never end? By nightfall, I’d feel like a war had been fought. I was wounded; sleep was not enough to heal me. Days would linger in my nerves, aftershocks registered on the electrical plain. Days made a physical impact. Days could hurt.”

  • I bought Deb Perelman’s latest cookbook. I have re-read this paragraph from the introduction numerous times, awed by her ability to capture what cooking can mean:

“I like the way that when you make something new and awesome, the first thing you want to do is tell another friend about it so they can make it, too. I like the way following a recipe to the letter can feel like handing the reins over after a long day of having to make all the decisions, but also that pulling off a good meal when you least expected is the fastest way to feel triumphant, even if your day left you short of opportunities to. I like the way that when you sublimate your wanderlust in a dish – a cacio e pepe addiction you picked up in Rome or a Thai-ish salad with crispy shallots, lime, and fish sauce – it becomes a gateway, or an escape hatch, to so much more than dinner. I like the way that when you cook at home, you don’t actually have to compromise a thing; you get to make exactly what you want, exactly the way you want it, and then you get to invite all your favorite people over to pass the dish around. I like the way a great meal makes grouchy people ungrouchy or turns a thankless day filled with thankless stuff into a hilarious one.”

  • Recently I’ve been puzzling over why some people don’t enjoy self-help subjects as much as I do. A friend helped me understand that self-knowledge can be painful. In an episode of Hidden Brain, the podcast host Shankar Vedantam, highlights and explains one experiment’s conclusion:

“Think of the deep irony (…); the folks who care the most about ethics might be most willing to turn a blind eye to unethical business practices because they know, if they found out about those practices, they would feel obliged to do something about it.” (This is 19 minutes into the podcast.)

So, say a person is raised with a strong moral code. Self-knowledge might be painful because of a preference for ambivalence.

“Clarity” writes Gretchen Rubin in Better Than Before, “requires us to acknowledge what we’re doing.”

Or, it might be painful because we cling to an identity. When the author gave up a habit she had of not owning a purse,

“being ‘the kind of woman who doesn’t own a purse’” the relinquishing “caused me a pang, even though it was such a tiny part of my identity.”

Understanding ourselves can also be painful because it forces us to confront our feelings of wanting to fit in by noticing how we are different. If a person has fragile self-esteem, this can be especially hard.

(About this, Gretchen Rubin writes, “surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve found that the more matter-of-fact I am about my habits, the more readily people accept them – and me.”)

However, avoiding self-knowledge can lead to self-deception. If I can recognize how it can be painful, I can learn to see the ways in which I deceive myself and I can be more understanding of myself and of others. In this respect, I appreciated this School of Life video.

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.