Monday, May 28, 2012

me, too, i live in montreal

A friend wrote to express surprise that I live in Montreal, which is getting international attention for the student demonstrations and public unrest with bill 78, and I'm blogging about my loom, chicken heads, and ocean surf CDs. Well, that's my life. It doesn't mean I'm not aware of what's happening; nor that I don't stand in my window and bang on my pot at 8 pm.
I don't write about it because I can't begin to offer an insightful overview that covers all the issues. I read the news, watch the videos, see the numbers. Were there 10,000, 100,000 or 400,000 in the march? Depends on who you read. Media coverage is as polarized as the camps who bang their pots--les casseroles!--in a show of support every evening, and the camps who complain about the noise and hope the government will pass an even more stringent bill to disallow pot-banging.
I wonder that the people who complain about the pots don't understand that the racket, which disturbs their evening for 15 minutes, is a very small disruption compared to the government's bill which restricts gathering (groups of more than 50) or picketing in the entire province of Quebec without prior police approval. Talk about muffling! People watch their right of expression being taken from them and don't protest--better yet, they protest when other people bestir themselves to protest.
So, no, I can't write about what's going on because I don't understand.
Sure, me too, I had my routine disturbed by student protests. One evening, it took me from 8:30 until 10 pm to get home--and I hadn't had supper yet--because of disruptions to the subway (for which the students are being blamed, though they haven't accepted responsibility). I had a few trips across the city I had to reroute to avoid a demonstration.
So what? I still support the students' right to protest and strike. If the only way that they can get the public's attention is to interrupt the traffic--because everyone is so well insulated in their car, talking on their cell phone, or listening to their music--well, there you go.
I believe that everyone has the right to an education in the same way that I believe everyone has the right to health care. I believe that everyone should fund education in the same way that I believe everyone should fund health care. I want to live in a society which is educated and healthy. What will it take to ensure that? The government sends out riot police. No, I don't understand.
What I can write about with assurance were my few encounters yesterday. A group in our neighbourhood, Point St. Charles, staged a protest against the recent announcement of federal cuts to social housing. (I hope they got police approval.) The protesters met in the park under the trees then took to the streets. Since the Point developed before the time of city grids, the streets angle in every direction. Kettling--a recent practice adopted by the Montreal police to surround and corner protesters--would take a little cunning here. Only a local knows which way is east and west. Even then, the road you're on can start out heading east only to curve north. I never saw the protesters, because the street I was walking along never met theirs, but I heard their call and answer. There were banners strung across apartment buildings and at the entrance to the park. Someone walking through might have thought there was a picnic--except for the dozen police cars blocking the main road to the IGA, stopping people who wanted to do their grocery shopping.
Yesterday was also la Journée des musées when all the museums in Montreal are free and there are special city buses shuttling people to the various buildings. Around the corner from where I live we have la Maison St. Gabriel, a 17th century stone house that's been preserved as a heritage museum. Yesterday it hosted demonstrations of spinning, weaving, basket making, and braiding ceintures fléchées. I don't know if it's interesting or simply a coincidence that an area like Point St. Charles, with the highest percentage of social housing in the municipality of Montreal, also happens to be the oldest settled area of Montreal.
So that was happening too: buses were packed with people on the way to watch a woman in period costume spinning uncarded wool. I walked over in the morning to watch a man weaving on a 17th century loom. I had a great talk with him. There were more than 50 people gathered before the old stone farmhouse, watching the different events. I wonder if the nuns who operate la Maison St. Gabriel got police approval.
In the evening the orchestra of pots and pans marched down our street at 8:15. I added my banging from the window. (Lazy form of protest.)
My friend Alice Petersen, who's just published a very fine collection of short fiction, All the Voices Cry, calls the sound of pots and pans every evening a disjointed angelus bell, which I find an apt image: at dusk, not in time, though all in a cluster. Not too big a cluster though. Less than fifty.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

a loom of my own

I couldn't sleep this morning, so got up and finished dressing the loom. I used to call that stringing it, but a weaver told me it's called dressing.
I'm an ad hoc amateur with more love of textiles than know-how. Years ago I took a couple of workshops at a community hall to learn the basics. I got myself a small table loom and later this 36" loom which a friend of a friend of a friend had in pieces in her basement. R did the honours of figuring out how to put it together. (Merci, mon cher!)
The action of weaving is relaxing... sending the shuttle back and forth, feet moving from treadle to treadle. It's fun to watch the zillions of individual threads coming at you interlock and become cloth. Yeah... that part is fun.
Getting the loom ready is labour intensive and hard on the back. Lots of leaning in weird postures, climbing under the loom to tie up the treadles, stooping over the reed. I didn't consider a weaving project in the immediate months after surgery. It would have been too hard. About a month ago I poked through my bin of leftover spools to see if there were colours I could mix to make a length of cloth. Since I only get to the loom every so many days, it takes weeks to get a project ready. I forgot to take a picture of preparing the warp, which is that mass of threads presently on the loom. There's a method to keep the 380 threads, 5 feet long, in order. There has to be a method to keep them in order or you'd end up with a complete tangle of knots.

Each thread gets pulled with a hook through the eye of a heddle. The heddles aren't all in a row but on four separate frames. Depending on the pattern of the weaving, one takes a heddle from the first, the second, the third, or the fourth frame. You get the idea. There are looms with six, eight, even twelve frames. It sounds orderly, but when you're doing it, the skinny heddles look like a field of wiry weeds. The threads coming at you look like a field too, only this field is coloured.
Here's where I ended up this morning:
For anyone who weaves, yes, I have absurdly long tails out front. Because... oh, I had a problem and had to pull the yarn forward. I also forgot to put lease sticks at the back which will give me all kinds of grief with tension.
But I look forward to weaving--and now I'm ready to start.
I've always thought a loom a handsome piece of furniture, especially when it's dressed. But it's awkward and large and, like me, needs a room of its own.

Monday, May 21, 2012

queen and john, toronto, circa 1980

I've been working on a story that draws on my experiences working in a restaurant in Toronto in the early 80s as a bartender/cappuccino maker. (No one said barista in those days.) I was a grad student at York, trying to live on $4,500 a year. It wasn't enough, and though I should have been working on my thesis, I needed a job.
My boyfriend at the time knew someone who worked in a restaurant. Their pastry chef, whose name was Dufflet, had just left to launch her own business. I'm not a pastry chef, but I know how to make cakes and pastry and crème pâtissière. For my job interview I made a Hazelnut Torte with Mocha Butter Cream and was hired. I worked three mornings a week and made more money per hour than I did at my teaching assistantship. I had a moment of fame too. Joanne Kates praised my peach pie in The Globe and Mail.
I can't remember why, but at some point I worked at the bar as well. The story I'm writing has to do with the coffee and the drinks experiences. I've remembered all kinds of details which don't fit into my story, so let me write about them here.
The owner of the restaurant came from Thailand... if I remember correctly. His family had given him a chunk of money and sent him off into the world to play. He'd studied Engineering in Germany but had never worked as an engineer. Rumour had it that he lived in a room lined with vinyl records, which people still played back then. I never saw the room myself. He didn't invite women. The colour of his socks  matched his tie, no matter how outlandish the choice. One of the waiters told me that his jock strap matched as well.

He called the restaurant the Cow Café--because, as he said, the menu was vegetarian. The rationale is dubious. Some diners expected steak. The various chefs and cooks, who came and went, made changes to the menu, finally including beef, fish, quail, and pork. It didn't matter. All their judicial simmering and sautéing was frustrated by the owner's visits to the kitchen. He would taste a dish and immediately add several spoonfuls of minced garlic. Chefs tried to bar him from the kitchen but it was his restaurant.
The restaurant was on John St, just north of Queen St West. The neighbourhood was only beginning to be trendy. We were situated on the second floor of what I recall as a renovated warehouse. There was steel tubing, high ceilings, lots of stairs--and large windows which overlooked the doors to a chicken-slaughtering plant. Businesses in the area had forced the chicken-slaughtering people to use trucks with high sides. But our restaurant was on the second floor. Were diners to look out the window and down, which not many did, they would have seen thousands of chicken heads being jostled in the back of a truck. The possibility made the wait staff anxious. Trucks went by with great regularity. The owner hired an artist to paint fanciful fronds and flowers across the lower windows. Diners complained that it blocked the light. Why have windows only to cover them with paint? They didn't realize they were being protected.
The restaurant lost money, which didn't surprise those of us who worked there--though we were surprised one day to find a chain and padlock on the doors. The owner hadn't given us any warning. Our favourite running shoes were still inside. My recipes. Someone's sweater. The owner felt badly--as far as an aesthete ever feels for people. He called a few of us and said that the bank was giving him a day's grace to retrieve personal belongings. He suggested we come in the evening and finish the liquor. We drank trays upon trays of B52s.
I've tagged this under travel, because trips back through memory are.

Friday, May 11, 2012

skumin's syndrome / clicking valves / ambient sound

The note below was written May 11, four months after surgery, when I was still bothered by the noise of my new heart valves clicking. If you're reading this because you wonder if you're the only one who feels frustrated and aggravated by the noise of mechanical valves, then go ahead. Keep reading.
But know this too: I'm writing today, June 19, five months plus a week since surgery. I'm not sure what happens physiologically, inside the body, as it heals after surgery. Does new tissue grow, fill up and muffle the noise? Do the organs resettle and cozy up to each other? Do the valves get used to their new home and clack less aggressively?
The clicking is quieter. My husband confirms it. I still hear it when I'm in a room alone with no ambient sound, but it's duller. At night, I no longer feel my heart thumping against the mattress when I lie on my side. I have not just grown accustomed to the clicking. It is less obtrusive.
There is hope.

But here's where I was five weeks ago...
Before I had cardiac surgery, I wrote a post on Skumin's Syndrome, a non-psychotic mental disorder that  afflicts a percentage of people with artificial valves. These people are anxious, they don't believe their valves work, they lose sleep, they become depressed. I've since been told that Skumin's Syndrome is not recognized by North American or Western European medicine. The Russian, Victor Skumin, who named the syndrome, didn't have a large enough control group to convince Houston, Oxford, Paris, Frankfurt. Only enough clout to get Russians to believe him.

Yet curiosity about the syndrome exists because I get a lot of hits on the site. It makes sense to me that people with these new alien objects in the place where, historically, the soul is supposed to reside, should feel anxious. Even people who don't believe in souls know that their bodies depend on the proper functioning of this muscle pumping in their chest. Someone diddled with it. Someone used a knife. Did that someone put everything back in the right place?
I don't feel that fear. Whatever was cut has by now healed. I'm not afraid of my new valves. I exercise and get them clacking. I don't lie awake worried that they'll stop. I'm not depressed that I have a repaired heart instead of a whole heart.

However. I am aggravated by the incessant clicking of the valves and that keeps me awake. I knew they would click, but before the surgery I didn't fully appreciate what it would feel like to live with the clicking. They click like a grandfather clock inside the cabinet of my ribs. They click like slow-speed castanets on incessant repeat. It's not an organic, skin or flesh sound. It's inside my chest. It never stops.
I try to sleep. The valves click. I wake in the night. They're clicking. I'm in a quiet room where I want to be silent and alone with the door closed, so I can think about writing. The valves click like a stopwatch to harass me.
The surgeon said I should listen to music. Excuse me? I've never listened to music while writing. I listen to music because it's music. I don't do background music.
Of course, I'm fortunate that the valves click because it means I'm alive. The day they stop clicking, I won't be around to hear it. I understand, I understand, I UNDERSTAND.
But damn, do they click. Since there are two valves, I get two clicks per heartbeat. The pace is not relaxing.
A few weeks ago I went to a talk on the North. One of the panelists, Kathleen Winter, who has twice now travelled to the Arctic, spoke of the utter silence of the tundra. Louis Hamelin, also an author who has spent time in the North, spoke of the silence. Ha, I thought. If I stood in any of these places of sacred silence, I would hear my valves clicking.
How loud is the clicking? I hear it now. At night R, who is reading in bed, can hear the clicking. You can extrapolate from that and imagine other times when we're closeup and the soundtrack is ta-tick, ta-tick, ta-tick, ta-tick, ta-tick.
Ambient sound is supposed to help. We have a decades-old ceiling fan in the bedroom that roars and drowns out the valves--while blowing cold air. I end up having to burrow so deeply under the blankets that I can hear the clicking inside the cave of blankets.
I tried a few recordings of rivers on pebbles and waves on sand, but they mostly sounded like a chorus of broken toilets.
I bought a sound conditioner which consumer reports claimed was one of the best on the market--a Marpac. People raved about the ocean surf. I can only assume that these people have never been to the ocean. At low volume, the machine drones like traffic on a busy highway, heard from an apartment window. At high volume, you feel like you're on the same highway, riding on a tailgate. The pitch control  makes the drone more or less shrill.
There's a Youtube clip demonstrating the use of this machine. A man in bed is being harassed by the noise of gunshots. What kind of marketing strategy is this? Gunshots??? What's the correct response to a situation like this? You're in bed, you hear gunshots. Maybe you should call the police. The man in the video clip turns on his Marpac Sound Conditioner, sighs with contentment, and falls asleep.
I wasn't able to drown out the sparrows outside my window, much less anything as loud as gunshots. Or rather: for the machine to be loud enough, I for sure couldn't sleep.
Another sound option I tried was a CD called Heartbeat River, specifically designed for people with mechanical valves. It claims to be a psycho-acoustic recording that will distract the listener from the sound of her own valve--by including random valve sounds with the river sounds. Interesting concept but it didn't work for me. In fact, it began to make me anxious to hear all these un-syncopated valve sounds. I had to keep putting my hand on my chest to make sure my heart wasn't beating like that. The recording lasts for about half an hour. I haven't managed past five minutes without having to turn it off as quickly as possible.
I did find one CD which actually sounds like ocean surf--probably because the quality of the recording is superior. I can play it loudly enough to mask the clicking and still write and read. I'm experimenting with wearing an ear bud at night to help me fall asleep. The CD is called Ocean Surf, Timeless and Sublime, part of Dan Gibson's Solitude series.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

translating german letters

A few weeks ago R announced that he'd volunteered my services. Oh yeah?!  I had no idea which services he meant, but I like to be consulted. We discussed this aspect of my character for a while.
Equally stubborn, R came back to the issue at hand.
He works in the administrative offices at a cemetery. That day an elderly woman had come in to arrange burial of her son's ashes. He'd died in Germany. She was Romanian, married to a British man with whom she'd moved to Canada. He was now dead. Her son had died too. She was bereft. She wept. She'd received a letter which she couldn't understand because it was in German. R had assured the people at the funeral home that I would translate it.
Once upon a time I studied German. I read Goethe, Eichendorff, Kleist, Zweig, and Böll in the original--but that was more than a few years ago. I have family in Austria, but when have I last been to visit? I understand German grammar. I can use a dictionary. But my German isn't fluent or current. I'm more comfortable with Grimm's fairy tales than a newspaper article.
Nor had R had seen this letter. He didn't know if it was typed or handwritten. If typed, it could be an official document with those architectural German words that require the linguistic equivalent of a calculator to understand. If handwritten, I might not be able to decipher the writing. Was the letter one or five pages long? How had the man died? What if it was a suicide note? Me, too, I have a heart for elderly women whose only remaining relative dies in a foreign country, but I would never have agreed to translate a document without knowing the details.
R was astounded that I wasn't even curious. When I told a couple of friends, they couldn't believe it either. Nobody understood my resistance. But hey, I've had other German letter experiences which have left me wary.
The first happened where I work in a hospital. It must have been one of those rare days when I remembered to wear my name tag. A Jewish patient commented that my name was German and asked if I spoke German. I said a little. He told his family who later approached me. Their father had received a letter from Germany. I agreed to tell them what it said. The next day they brought it. I began to translate out loud as I read. This was a letter offering their father restitution for having worked in a labour camp in the 1940s. The sum was pitiable given what he'd lost. The family was outraged. I don't blame them. But within moments, having no one else at whom they could rant, they began to accuse me. I spoke the disgusting language of these disgusting people who had committed this crime. By association, that made me disgusting. Big scene in the hospital hallway. Kill the messenger. Leave no witnesses.
The next time I was asked to translate a German letter was when a medical secretary where I work called to say that her doctor had received a letter. It was a page long, handwritten, with no return address. Signature illegible. I agreed to stop by the office when I was at work.
I'd learned not to read out loud until I'd perused the whole letter. The writing was loopy and not always easy to follow. I gathered that the doctor had spent a weekend with a woman. She remembered various parts of his anatomy fondly--aesthetics and use. The soundtrack for their romps was Neil Diamond. She claimed she missed the doctor and thought of him often while listening to Neil Diamond. The description of how she consoled herself was graphic. I never learned this kind of vocabulary, but I got the gist of it. Fingers and verbs and yearning.
The doctor had a clinic that day and was rushing in and out of the examining room, patients in tow. He's a good guy. He's married. I didn't want to embarrass him. I asked if he'd been to a conference in Munich. Not for a while. I said this woman missed him. But there's a whole page, he insisted. She must have said more than that. Hm... yeah... do you like Neil Diamond? If that gave him a clue, he didn't show it.
Does that explain my reluctance to translate this cemetery letter? But okay, I agreed.
The letter was two pages, typewritten, on official letterhead from graveyard facilities in a German municipality. It was the bill for the man's cremation. Quite simply a bill. But in German. The date of the letter, the date of the cremation, the date that payment was due was repeated several times. The name of the municipality and the facilities were repeated. With each recurrence, the act was described with different words: commit the remains to fire, render the body to ashes, cremate, incinerate--as if several different events had happened. The bill was itemized, though there was only one item on the list. One body cremated.
Translating was easy. I reproduced the two pages, miming the original format.    
Last week a car pulled up before the cemetery offices. R was asked to come outside. The Romanian woman stepped out to give him a bottle of wine for me.
Nice. So maybe I will translate a letter again.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

notebooks and travels

When I travel, I buy notebooks. I take them home with me and use them for writing. I'm able to compose on my laptop, but I prefer longhand for that first encounter with the characters, where and how they live, what develops. Maybe it's a superstition, but to me the process of writing feels more organic. I especially like the scratchy-scrawly feel of a fountain pen. The notebooks too. They're special because they come from... over the rainbow. I have notebooks from Spain, Germany, Italy, Morocco, Tunisia, Mexico. The notebooks bought in Tunisia and Morocco are from France because the level of literacy is--or was--so low in those countries that mostly only people with European pretensions were shopping in the stores that sold stationary and paper. I hope that's no longer true.
Quite apart from the story developing as I write, I get pleasure from remembering the country where I bought the notebook. Often--as this morning--there's an extra surprise.
Because another thing I do when travelling is pick a flower here and there--often no more than a weed--and slip it between the pages of a notebook. I'm Canadian. You bet, I notice flowers when it's winter and back home I know there's snow heaped along the sidewalk. Lipstick hot hibiscus, tangerine bougainvillea!
Since I buy four or five notebooks in a country, and only get a new story idea maybe once or twice a year, time can pass before I turn the page where I find a pressed flower. This morning I flipped a page of  a notebook bought in Mexico.