Limestone Genre Expo, Year 3

I spent a good part of this weekend at the Limestone Genre Expo, in Kingston, Ontario. This is the third year I’ve bought tickets, but only the first time I could pry my introverted butt out and down to the event. I was never entirely sure about what to expect.

As if I always know what to expect when I leave the house. It takes an iron will to break through and the Limestone Genre Expo was well worth the effort.

The Expo portion of the event includes booths from the various writers and publishers represented or attending. The Genre portion of the event is a series of panels and workshops on writing in various genres and cross-genre. The range of topics were wonderful, there was something for everyone, I thought. I thought that because I saw people heading into rooms where I was not going. I was never a lone audience member.

The Limestone part of the event is Kingston, the Limestone City. Limestone is everywhere in Kingston, buildings, outcroppings, carefully arranged gardens, and more.

I made it to a workshop and four panels. In general, the people at the event, both as presenters and attendees, were interested in discussions. There was a lot of laughter in the hallways. In some ways, it felt more like a party.

Flash Fiction Workshop

I arrived late and I didn’t arrive with work in hand. Sounds like my five years at Catholic school.

The workshop leader, Rob Brunet (, walked us through the elements of good flash fiction. It might be nice, for future, to bring one or more prompts in and have us all plow away at a piece. We could talk more about the process once we’ve challenged ourselves with what we’ve heard and read.

But then, as far as creativity goes these days, I always seem to need a prompt.

Rob’s piece was one he’d had published on a flash site that focuses on mysteries, murder mysteries (I assume). His piece about a possible crime, it’s never truly revealed, was gently amusing about a missing man’s whereabouts. Rob encourages flash fiction writers to be on the lookout for those prompts in your life that can lead you many other places.

Melissa Yi ( came to the workshop and read “Because” a flash piece published in Fiction River Special Edition: Crime ( That was a particularly disturbing piece.

I read “Come Along” which was accepted on

Extraordinary Bodies Panel

In advance of commenting on the panel, I do want to say that as a person who became disabled as an adult, I admit to a prejudice about disabilities. I didn’t think I deserved this fate. It’s taken six long years of struggle for me to come to terms with my own disability. The second concern I had going in had to do with cultural appropriation.

The panel was Cait Gordon (, Pat Flewwelling, Laura Baumbach (, Dominic Bercier (, Jennifer Carole Lewis (, and Rick Blechta ( The moderator was Curtis Brunet (from Cogeco Cable, a sponsor of the event and provider of interviews with and readings by the authors attending the event).

The panel began with the authors making a point they felt was important. Generally, it was agreed that the disability needs to be integral to the character but not, necessarily, the plot. Every author spoke of the need for research and reviews to ensure you are handling the subject matter correctly, sensitively, and not too gently. As Cait declared, “Don’t make us pathetic, let us have personality. And sex!”

There was a lively discussion as a number of audience members were people with mental and/or physical disabilities. It did seem, overall, that the panel was singing to the choir. Nonetheless, here are some pointers that came out of the session:

  • no miracle cures
  • no inspiration porn – using tropes to make the angels sing and everything hunky-dory
  • you may have to spoon-feed some readers, but keep the feeding within the storyline

And here are some suggested reading:

  • Borderline by Mishell Baker
  • Journey of a Thousand Steps by Madona Skaff-Koren
  • The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I know there’s more out there.

Poetry and Spoken Word Panel

I admit, during the discussion on poetry and the spoken word, I wrote a surreal poem. I was trying for surreal.

the black cat came in through the back door
a duck quacked sullenly in the dark
this was the end, by life takes a turn
suddenly, a small dog barks, raising cain
cain kills his brother, according to the stories
round the fire to keep the night at bay

It’s not great, but it occupied my mind while everyone settled in. Got me in the mood.

The panel was Alyssa Cooper (, Bob MacKenzie, Sandra Kasturi (, Anita Dolman (, and Janet Kellough ( The moderator was Kate Heartfelt.

This was an interesting panel if only because almost everything that Bob said, he seemed to preface with “I’m going to disagree with you on…” enter topic or point here. It began to sound more like a verbal tick than anything else.

There was a discussion of the difference between “page” poetry and “spoken” or “performance” poetry. In answer to a question from the audience, the authors debated the idea that writing for performance changes the shape of poetry as you write. Others felt that both forms were worked the same. The shape of poetry on the page communicates, or can communicate, just as pauses, body motion, and voice can enhance or emphasize the various elements of the poem. I’m just guessing here.

I’m delighted that poetry is blossoming under the care of an oral tradition. The Internet age allows us to share of oral traditions with a much larger audience.

Q&A with a Forensic Investigator Panel

I was thrilled to get in to listen to Jeff Smith, an investigator with the Kingston Police Force. Jeff is a soft-spoken man with a lot of experience to convey. There were eager, often repetitive, questions from across the audience. Much of which focused on the details of a murder investigation:

  • when were suspects questioned (as soon as possible, as often as useful)
  • what do the crime scene investigators do (collect data)
  • when are autopsies needed and who determines that (on-scene officers determine if it is a suspicious death, an autopsy the next day)
  • are people on bail forced to wear trackers (no, it’s very expensive to outfit an individual with an ankle monitor)
  • are shows like The First 48 realistic (no, not at all, although Jeff compared the time at the start of a murder investigation to an ice cream cone saying you want to get things done before the ice cream melts)

And so, I give you this:

My heart is scored with the sensation of birth
Striated from your barrel of rage, I am dumped, squalling
You spun me like a cartridge in my daddy’s old rifle

Deep in the shade of an old oak tree, I plan
Your demise I imagine, your painful death I replay
Tomorrow, I promise, I will wake up and start, be ready

Your fingerprints are found all over the scene
All the evidence I need to prove you did this
You may have misfired, this time; don’t worry, I won’t.

No hurry, this ice cream won’t melt

Computers, Teleporters, & Robots Panel

This was a fun panel and I’m glad I was able to fit it in, as I was tiring. The panelists were Matthew Bin (, Madonna Skaff-Koren (, Jack Briglio (, Lisa Tooey, Katherine Prairie (, and Melissa Yuan-Innes (Melissa Yi at The lively and balanced moderator was Kris Jacen.

We spent a bunch of time talking about Artificial Intelligence. I opened my mouth right away. I had been messing about with the idea of AI because I’d found a contrast between stories such as “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and the CBC’s story on AI which was mostly about how our current ability leaves most AI products biased. The news article was a bit on the “be frightened, there be boogie AIs in your future!”

We talked about the limits of science. We played about with teleportation as a device plot, mostly approved of when they break down or fail the characters in some way, creating tension.

The general agreement was that a working AI needs to be beyond, above, or without morals. I was uncomfortable with this so I looked into the idea of ethics and morals. You’d build an ethical AI because you’d program in rules, like Asimov’s 3 Laws:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws form the ethical backbone of your AI. Unlike morals, which are your interpretation of right and wrong, ethics are imposed or provided by an external entity.

Asimov’s 3 Laws, then, are the foundation of the ethical backbone of the AI. Any other constraints on its behaviour, assuming the 3 Laws are included in the programming, depending on the programmers of the black box, the processing, and the data fed into the AI system. AIs learn through data dumps, as much information as possible, and pattern searching. There’s a lot to play with there! It’s the age old question of nature and nurture, where does the being derive its core beliefs?

Practical Gourmet, Company’s Coming: Gluten-Free Baking, by Ted Wolff

Practical Gourmet, Company's Coming: Gluten-Free Baking
The book that has inspired me: Gluten-Free Baking

I love this book. I was directed to a restricted diet by my doctor. The saddest day was the day I surrendered bread to health. I missed baked goods and much of what I could find in terms of gluten-free treats was limited. I was perusing cookbooks, looking for a gift for someone else, when I stumbled upon the Practical Gourmet Company’s Coming Gluten-Free Baking cookbook by Ted Wolff.

From the first recipe to the last, Mr. Wolff presents a delightful array of treats and fundamentals (if you, like me, consider toast to be a part of the perfect breakfast). My favourite, so far, has to be the English Muffins. I have yet to get a perfect batch but even my flawed efforts have been more than edible, they’ve been delicious.

Going Gluten-Free

There is an ongoing discussion about the relative benefits of adopting a gluten-free diet, particularly if you do not have any medical need for doing so. I came to gluten-free on the advice of my doctor. Even then, I procrastinated, at least at first.

For me, gluten-free is part of the FODMAP diet. FODMAP organizes foods by how they affect IBS and other digestive diseases. My food became restricted just over a year ago.

Gluten-Free French loaves
two gluten-free bread loaves

We started with buying commercial gluten-free baked goods. We found the results spotty, at best; we also found that gluten-free didn’t always work out in terms of taste and texture. Things seemed bleak.

I came upon mixes for some gluten-free baked goods. Again the quality was erratic. We found a couple of good mixes and stuck with those. I felt restricted, but I felt more comfortable. The food I was eating was a better quality. My guts settled down. I stopped losing weight. I’ve actually put nearly 5 kilos back on.

When I found the cookbook, Gluten-Free Baking, at my local bookstore, I stood there for nearly half an hour and I read it, rapt. I haven’t done a lot of baking over my life and I enjoy baking. The recipes were slightly daunting as the ingredient lists seemed longer and more complex than anything I’d done to date. I bought the book and it’s been the best purchase I’ve made in a long while.

Array of new ingredients for gluten-free baking
Suddenly, my pantry is filled!

Gluten-Free Baking – the Cookbook

The Gluten-Free Baking cookbook is part of the Practical Gourmet’s Company’s Coming series. The book has also benefited from the Canada Book Fund provided by the Government of Canada. The author, Ted Wolff, is an award-winning entrepreneur who loves to take gluten-free products to the public. This man loves gluten-free and he’s made it possible for me to love gluten-free, as well.

The book not only contains excellent recipes but it presents them in a brilliant format. Each recipe occupies a two-page spread. The ingredients and starting instructions generally occupy a single page, but there are recipes that require the second page. There are notes and asides on some pages, providing hints that can be applied to almost any recipe.

wire-o binding

The covers are resilient and include a deep flap (on the front cover) and a narrower flap (on the back cover). These work well for marking pages in the cookbook, even when it is closed.

The wire-o binding allows the book to be opened as a two-page spread or folded open to present the single page you need.

The pages are clean and simple in presentation. The paper is perfect for the kitchen with enough coating to protect them from mess but not so glossy you can’t read.

The book is well organized. The front matter includes a discussion of some of the ingredients, particularly those that people may have trouble finding or other reasons for needing a substitution. The description includes substitutions and the changes needed to make the recipe work.

I found this section useful as it gave me a grocery list and allowed me to compare the ingredients to my FODMAP restrictions. Because peas and honey are not part of the core FODMAP diet, I decided to try the recipes without them. Substitutions are offered for the pea fibres, protein, and starch.

The book starts with three basic recipes for flour. Each recipe is divided into two sections. The first section describes the base flour and starch mixture proportions. Rather than dictating a quantity for the result, the recipes are written as parts or proportions.

You can leave the mixture as the core ingredients and tailor it at baking time or you can tailor the mixture and label it for use in recipes for Breads, Muffins, Cookies, or Cakes.

The tailoring ingredients are listed below the basic list of flours and starches. These ingredients will vary depending on the type of baking you’re planning. These ingredients include baking powder, baking soda, whey powder, and xanthan gum.

Basic White is a good, generic white flour that you’ll find used in many of the recipes. The second Basic Recipe is for a Self-rising White blend. This blend is excellent used in quick recipes. The third Basic Recipe is Basic Brown; this is a whole grain flour with a richer texture and flavour profile.

After this, the book moves into the recipes organized by sections. The sections are marked, on the physical book, with coloured tabs. This makes it easy to navigate.

The index is short but complete and easy to use. The table of contents is even briefer and the index is the better way to find a particular recipe.

The only thing missing is a conversion chart. If you are, for example, replacing Pea starch with Potato, Tapioca, and Corn starches, you need to divide the Pea starch amount by 3. I found a conversion chart and taped it to the inside of the front cover. It reminds me, quickly, that 1/4 cup of Pea starch is replaced by 4 teaspoons each of Potato, Tapioca, and Corn starches.

I’ve experimented with several sections of the cookbook. Here are some section-by-section highlights.

From the Breads and Buns Section: French Bread

French bread loaf
French bread loaf

The French bread recipe produces a loaf that is tasty both as bread and as toast. It lasts much longer as a source for toast; the texture changes as the loaf dries out.

This is the first recipe in which I used the Dough Enhancer that the cookbook includes in the introductory material. I’ve added honey, as well, to improve the lifespan of the texture.

The recipes are easy to follow. I had no trouble producing fluffy French loaves from the first batch.

From the Loaves and Muffins Section: Lemon Cranberry Loaf

This is a wonderful recipe and has given me several delightful loaves. I’ve converted this recipe into an Orange Cranberry loaf and then into an Orange Pomegranate loaf! This loaf is a mouth-friendly fruit loaf. The texture is chewy without being gooey. The flavour is bright, particularly the orange-pomegranate version.

This loaf is relatively easy to make, it doesn’t rise and, as such, requires no proofing. I suggest that you use the dough improver and some honey in this recipe. The dough improver enhances the flavour, popping it out that extra bit and the honey helps preserve the moisture in the loaf.

Sadly no loaf has lasted long enough to be photographed.

From the Cakes and Brownie Section: Lemon Cake

A Marvellous Marble Cake
A Marvellous Marble Cake

You’ll have to trust me that the brownie and lemon cake recipes are easy and fun, as well as delicious to eat and share. Even my non-GF friends enjoy these treats. I made the lemon cake mix and the brownie mixture, then I blended them, in the pans, to make a 2-layer marble cake. Delicious!

I had to adjust the baking time, as the two recipes used different baking temperatures. Also, I added toffee chips to the brownie mix which changed many things about the cake! The bottom layer, where I put the brownie on the bottom, was crunchy from the melting toffee bits.

The toffee bits also made the cake denser than what the regular recipe produces.

From the Brunch and Biscuits Section: English Muffins

We love English muffins! For my birthday, this year, we started the day with salmon Eggs Benedict built on the English muffins from this recipe. This recipe produces English muffins that are toothy and delicious. They crack open nicely when pierced around the edge with a fork.

I did have some problems getting this recipe right because my tray is a six-bun tray and the recipe is for ten muffins. In my second round, I tried splitting the dough into two bakes. This technique needs some refinement.

Mother’s Day

Marilyn shooting pool
Marilyn shooting pool

For all of you out there who are happily feting the woman who raised you, I have nothing but warm feelings. I love the sight of mothers and daughters laughing together, or huddled close, or even just smiling. Days like Mother’s Day bring the best and the worst out in relationships. The shiny perfection meets the reality.

For all of us, our relationship with our mother is fundamental and affecting. The ripples reach every beach in our being. That relationship forms us.

I love my mother. She had difficulties. She could never overcome them. She needed to be loved, unconditionally, more than your average. She was like fire, enticing and dangerous. Many people never saw the raw Marilyn, or Lyn, as she came to prefer. Like an acolyte on a pyre, I grew up experiencing the agony and the ecstasy of her attention.

Mother was the youngest of seven. She was born when it was clear that the Great Depression was a fact of life. The family was fortunate that relatives had a nearby farm. Summers were for working the land and producing food. By the time my mother was old enough to help she was also old enough to know she had no interest in helping. I bet her family howled with laughter at her antics.

Marilyn on a pony
Marilyn on a pony

I never met her father, except through stories and there weren’t many on offer; he died when she was 16 and that was a traumatic experience for her. She told me many times that she had snuck out to be with friends the night he died, she wasn’t home when he died and she regretted that. Or she regretted the additional suffering her family went through because not only was the man dead but the youngest child was missing. No, she didn’t want to relieve her family of suffering, but, more likely, she wanted to be there for the event. As if having snuck out didn’t make as good a story now.

Sneaking out was my mother’s favourite activity. She snuck out on my father. She snuck out on us. She had a lot of fun. When she couldn’t sneak away, she’d drag us along. This is probably why I’ve never wanted to get involved in local theatre. Mother was a ham. She loved theatre. She didn’t seem to get many roles. She loved the experience. I don’t recall her complaining about rehearsals, just fretting that she’d be late. My father was busy with other activities, so other men came to get my mother. Other members of the theatre community. She had a lot of fun.

I did get to watch her, once, in a small production. She was a vine. What a ham! We kids, in the audience, were laughing and screaming for the prince to “Watch Out!” My mother kept writhing, wiggling, and wandering closer and closer to the rapt prince.

Socially, there were few who could keep up with the woman my mother became when she stepped out of our home and into the wider world. I saw her on both sides of the door. I was in awe. And terrified. I couldn’t figure out who my mother was. Now I know. I have enough life experience, and adult experience of my mother, to be able to appreciate her more fully.

When I was maybe 10 I liked to playact scenes out. Some required makeup. In one series of self-scripted scenes, I was from Mars and covered with green swirling lines produced using my mother’s eyeliner pencils. One day, I forgot to lock the bathroom door and, when I was mid-monologue, my mother walked into the bathroom. I froze. She looked at me, naked but for swirls of eyeliner, for the longest couple of seconds in the history of time. She smiled. She smiled, nodded, and said, “So, this is where my eyeliner has been going.” She locked the handle, stepped out, and quietly closed the bathroom door behind her. The lock snicked. I had been given permission to have imagination. What greater gift can a powerful parent bequeath?

Our relationship was full of contradictions. Black and white types of contradictions. The truth/the way things are was defined moment by moment. You could not trust a single story my mother told. She was such an inveterate liar that I find it ironic and hilarious that I was the designated family liar. The story about imagination? The flip side was that the creativity was also considered lying, somehow. It got twisted up. My stories became those kinds of stories where everyone grimaces, shakes their head, and roll their eyes.

My writing was encouraged. Small stories and poetry. Mostly poetry. Poetry was compact. Poetry could be memorized and brought out for demonstrations of my mother’s children’s supremacy. My sister and I were artists. I don’t recall my brother getting as well-defined a future as my sister and I received. He got her sloppy, hungry love. She felt reflected in my sister and me. Different kinds of attention and need.

When I was 11, mother introduced me to bartending. I was taught using the “splash and taste” school of bartending. After successfully getting my mother hammered I would be offered my reward: a drink of my own. Now, I was to make it a lightweight. Less booze than mother’s drink. I never got caught. I mixed my drinks just as strong as hers. Stood me in good stead later when I spent nights passed out in dangerous places.

When I was a teenager, my mother was going through her own crisis. At the cusp of my teen years, my mother left dad. She moved out when he was out of town. She was now a single mother with three children. Luckily, we were all old enough to run our own days. I learned more about sex with men. My mother had already trained me as her bartender and I got a lot of practice. My sister introduced me to pot. Saved my life.

The hardest part for my mother was her loss of a social life. All the men who had courted and had sex with her when she was safely married, started avoiding her. Her girlfriends, all safely married, did not want to be haunted by the spectre of divorce. She became a fifth wheel and spent quality time, instead, at home with her children. Her violent behaviour, which had faded as we’d all grown taller than her, reappeared. All that passion misdirected.

Being lonely, being unfettered by a husband who protested expenses, Marilyn signed up for several credit cards and got them. Easily, far too easily. There weren’t any problems, at first. But, for the rest of her life, my mother stubbornly resisted every effort I made to explain how credit cards actually work. No.

She would cry, howl, yell, growl, whatever her mood, in response to the dunning letters she’d received. “It’s MY money!” Yes. She thought it was her money. If she didn’t make a payment, it was okay. The worst were the dunning letters that declared they would seize property. “I didn’t use THAT card to buy my TV! They can’t take my TV!”

Marilyn and Aunt Reta
Marilyn and Aunt Reta

In later years, when she’s run into these credit card fiascos, the situation was bandaged with a donation from me to her. Happily, we never ever got around to opening a joint account (to make the transfer of funds easier). I am glad I never got my credit associated with hers.

During the early years of the separation, the entire family heaved with tension and confusion. For a while, my mother simply ran her life as if my father simply lived somewhere else and still provided any and all needs. He bought us a chest freezer and a half a cow; this has always struck me as odd. Why, during all the years previous, had she not thought of this? It wasn’t our practice and the freezer didn’t survive our first move.

In her dotage, a term I use loosely, my mother resumed the chest freezer gig but filled it, instead, with large batches of food she’d prepare. The woman barely ate. In her last couple of years, we tried several ways to ensure she had food. We knew that most of the money we sent her went towards alcohol and cigarettes. She bought her cigarettes on the black market to save the taxes. My mother! She never stopped surprising me.

My sister was the first to escape my mother’s den. She headed first to my father but found that, in spite of the motorcycle, she just couldn’t live with him. She moved in with her boyfriend and his family. This was her Pleasantville.

My brother was sent off, next. He bounced back, not long after.

When I left, I did it the best. I didn’t go to our father. I left town. I used my thumb to find someplace to put down roots. I disappeared for a couple of years. When I returned, I wandered to my mother’s office; it was familiar territory. I arrived as my mother was putting on her coat. Good timing, I thought. But mother’s face when she saw me told me that something larger was going on. I had no idea what good timing I had. My mother had received a call. There was a body and would she come and take a peek? It seems that my previous job, at a federal department, had a dangling paycheque for me. When I didn’t pick it up after several months, they notified the police. Weird, but true, if my mother can be believed.

I was a burden to my mother. Even as I propped her up and cared for her. I had learned, at some point, how to live and love without judgment. Her mercurial ways were no longer a rip tide in my life; I had learned how to get out of her way and protect both her and my boundaries. She appreciated this. Deeply affected, she took to a modified version of her interfering. As long as my boundaries remained in place, she didn’t have access to her superpower and could no longer goad me into revealing secrets. Boundaries were her kryptonite.

My mother had a charming technique that she used to get information from people. When you were a stranger or someone she depended on, she could make statements that prompted you to respond. Now, these statements could be outrageous, but largely they were her opinions of the moment. And, I think, she was genuinely curious about other people but her curiosity had a strange hankering to it. A hunger ached in her.

When I would spend time alone with her, my mother would pester me using a technique I called “sharking.” During the day, before she’d settled into her TV chair, she would circle her apartment and I’d find myself a key point of the circuit. The other key point was the wine bottle in the kitchen. Each time she passed me, she’d pause and make a statement or ask a question. Each one was a probe, and I’d long since learned how to cope with these probes. Some I’d simply ignore, she had a short attention span. Some I’d give a non-committal “huh.” Then I’d get nailed. She was relentless. During one visit, while I was trying to figure out what she’d done to her computer, she circled until she got me. I think it was a combination of trying to untangle her files and stay off her baited hook; I lost it when she arrived behind me (another much-used tactic) and said, “I don’t know why Doris played that drug song at your father’s funeral.” Doris is my father’s widow. The song in question is “Candy Man.” It was my father’s favourite song. We had an argument about the song and, surprisingly, I may have “won.” She relented in my steadiness. My argument was that it didn’t matter what the subject matter was or wasn’t, it was Dad’s favourite song.

For most of my working life, I sent money to my mother each month. I occasionally made extraordinary donations to help when her credit card debts were generating new demands. It frightened her that lawyers were writing letters to her. We set up meal deliveries. We ordered groceries online and had them delivered to her.

Her response? STOP! First reason: “The meals are too salty.” When she was assured we could change that with diet choices. Oh, uh, no.

Second reason: “It ruins my plans to have to wait for them.” Oh, do you go out every day? No. Do you usually go out on the spur of the moment? No, have to arrange the disabled bus. Oh, so knowing that a meal is coming on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday interferes with your life so much that you can’t function. No.

The author looking rumpled
The author looking rumpled.

Next reason: “I don’t like having to get ready for them.” Now this I get. For my mother to leave her apartment for any reason (think check the mail and do the laundry), she needs to shower, do her hair, do her makeup, and dress. No sleep pants and t-shirt with sleep rumpled hair.

I didn’t even demure at this since I understood. But, out of the blue, the truth came flying from her mouth with the final reason, “I’d rather have the money.”

I remember when I, as an adult, semi-resided with my mother. She needed help with rent and I needed a landing spot for when I was in town working. My dog feared her. I had to bring the dog, but I made it as painless as possible for him. My mother resented the dog coming along; she wanted me to visit her. Walking the dog became my period of freedom and her period of worse loneliness.

My mother would chat at me the entire time we were in the apartment together. Sometimes, in the middle of the night I’d hear her in the hall and when she could hear me, she’d stop in my doorway and chat with me. She always stood the same way. Hipshot, ankles crossed, one hand with a cigarette near her mouth, one arm across her chest, her head slightly thrown back. She smoked with dedication. Each draw was a commitment. Deep, even intake followed by a variety of expressions of smoke: through the nose as a trickle, a gust through the nose, out the side of her mouth, with her head turned aside and a stream of smoked from pursed lips, and, finally, fogging out of her mouth as she talked.

I can’t think of my mother without also thinking of cigarettes and alcohol. Moments after she finished her morning coffee, she would have a glass in her hand. As she got older, she started her day with watered wine. She claimed she drank less. One evening I watched her switch to beer as she dressed to go out. She kept up with the beers until her ride arrived, late. I waved her off, have fun! The next morning she told me that she just couldn’t hold her liquor like she used to. I must have looked either confused, skeptical, or otherwise disbelieving. “Yes, I’m serious! I only had two drinks last night and I was on my ass!” Right, I thought, you don’t count the bottle of wine and several beers that preceded the drinks at the bar. “Wow,” I replied. What else was I going to say?

Oh, I could have told her she was daft, but it’s unlikely you have seen the rage monster that lived inside her. It consumed her at times. It rampaged like wildfire, tearing through her mind, leaving nothing but ash behind. Sometimes the burning contained entire histories of truth and fabrication; in the moment of the pyre, there is no difference between fact and fiction. What mother says in that voice, with that rage, that is the truth right now, and you better believe it, buster, or you’re out on your ass. Never mind that it’s my income making things easier. Decades of training kick in. I believe.

I love my mother, still. I have few good memories of her. Some funny, like when she insisted I loved her more than I love my wife. The proof, according to my mother, is the connection we made when she first looked into my deep, brown eyes. My eyes aren’t brown. Never mind that we white babies aren’t often born with deep, brown eyes. She’s thinking of someone else’s baby. Nevertheless, there was no convincing my mother, and my wife, wisely, did not try. What my wife did try was to keep from laughing or storming off. I, on the other hand, kept finding odd reasons for leaving the room, and in one case, the building.

Marilyn visiting BC
Marilyn visiting BC

One year, my aunt paid for Marilyn to fly to BC. I was in Washington State. Apparently, there were plans for me in there somewhere but I didn’t hear of the trip until my mother was practically leaving for the airport. My aunt ended up hospitalized during my mother’s visit, leaving my uncle and mother together to yank mercilessly on each other’s nerves. My wife and I decided to take my mother over to Vancouver Island so she could spend a few minutes with her grandson. We drove up to Vancouver. We picked up mother. From the back seat, she would pipe up with wondrous lines: “The way you drive it’s no wonder you have no friends.”

All that theatre training must have been helpful because my mother could pitch her voice and project without yelling. In fact, some of her mutterings were more audible than other people’s normal conversation. It didn’t change anything to turn up the music. I can never thank my wife enough for that weekend. While we were settling into the hotel, which did not have a bar, my mother revealed that she’d not had any alcohol for the three days she’d been along with my uncle. He was, naturally, quite distraught about his wife in hospital and he didn’t like how much my mother drank and smoked. So, he decided to not drive her to the liquor store. This is Canada, folks, you buy your booze from the government in most provinces.

There was one liquor store open, for the next half an hour. We didn’t know our way in Victoria, but we rolled down our windows and queried pedestrians wherever we could find them. We got the liquor store in time. Agog at the offerings, quickly as we could, we made several selections and headed back to the hotel. At the door to her room, my mother snatched the bag away from me and turned away.

We were relieved. The idea of my mother going through DTs down the hall was frightening.

For the last 7 years of her life, I lived far from my mother and spent time with her through phone calls. It was odd to hear my voice on the message machine at her apartment while I sorted through the debris of a life. She died one night, nobody is sure which night and was found when the neighbours complained of a smell. Not the way you want to have a loved one go. The message on the phone had, initially, played out in an apartment occupied by a dead woman.

Ninefox Gambit in Review

Every once in a while, my wife will suggest I read something she’s just read because I will, just like her, love it. I resist these recommendations. Somehow it feels like a set-up for failure; I’ll fail to love the book, the author will fail to live up to the advertisement, my wife will fail in her recognition of my preferences. So much riding on such small acts.

I just finished reading Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. I think you should read it.

cover of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

As a writer, I resist the temptation to compare and contrast myself against authors. Any such comparison would be beyond odious. I have, mostly, shed this wretched habit. I wanted to practice this newfound appreciation of others. I do not need the proverbial bitters before this meal. I long to pull out a chair at Yoon Ha Lee’s table.

This is the type of story that has stepped light-years out along a continuum and brought back a story of the future.

The writing feels a bit dense in the beginning as you struggle to find a raft in the sea of new perspective Yoon Ha drops you into. From the very first, you’re deep in the universe of the story. This is a powerful opera in the making; rich worldbuilding saves you from drowning, only to push you back under, once or twice, and fabulous character development gives you bridges into worlds beyond your imagining. Or not. If you’ve lived this kind of madness, there are a thousand gurus seeking you.

The teacher in the novel is a dark presence. There are no light presences. This is a story of liferafts. The characters lurch from the debris of one disaster after another. If you read quickly, you’ll find yourself grabbing the edges, just as you grabbed the toboggan on those really ragged, long hills; speed and height leave you scrabbling for a handhold.

The pronouncements provided by Ninefox Gambit, written into this amazing adventure by Yoon Ha Lee, are cutting edge in a social dynamic that roiling with uncertainty and rip tides. Some might call it brave. I call it scalding. I think you have to be brave to really read it.

It helped to have read the Locus interview with the author.

The novel is an equation to be solved. Reflecting back on the story with that in mind, I find that each scene is both an equation and a result inserted into the larger equation. It’s a pragmatic view and one shared by few writers. The idea percolated and with a light switch from music to math, we find ourselves traveling an entirely new universe.

The plotline is tangled enough to satisfy the lustiest of plot lovers. There are scenes that may, momentarily, seem jarringly unrelated to the core story arc, but as you chew on the author’s vision, it becomes clear that the divisions of society both work and don’t work. A working version of the universe is in place, but, as always when the powers have everything settled to their satisfaction, a rebel is born. Some rebels must then be cultivated and set against that external rebel.

Rebellion is not a new idea in this universe. Meet the riskiest rebellion yet. Let’s increase the ante! Introduce two internal rebels and pray that they cancel each other out as internal rebels while applying a quantum leap of rebel logic to the problem, the immediate problem, the external problem. The solution of this larger problem, defeating the most dangerous heresy to date, occupies the space opera slot of this heavily driven plot. Breathless pacing.

The development of the central characters is rich and arrived at through the view of actions and motivations. Lee writes brilliantly. While pulling you down into a whirlpool, Yoon Ha shows you the character acting habitually and thinking beyond those habits. Wishing, as we all have at some point, that things could be different.

Character development appears effortless. Not long into the story, you begin to wonder who people are. Who they really are. The characters emerge, are revealed and transformed, as seen through their actions and their asides. Skillful writing! The protagonist, Cheris, is someone you want to connect with, someone you want to see Cheris win in this complex collapse of civilization. Or the collapse of a complex civilization.

Flashbacks are handled consciously. Come here. Look, a flashback. This character learns. You learn. Each flashback contributes to the development of the story, the universe, and the characters. There is a lot to know in this story. As complex as the mathematic basis may feel, at the beginning, you can understand it, with increasing confidence, as the story develops. There are ongoing expansions of the concepts. With exquisite writing, Yoon Ha brings us along the story arc, no matter how well we meet the mathematics.

Can one trust one’s own rebel? Can one trust?

My advice remains: read this book.

I write; I am therefor.

You may wonder about that possibly misspelt word “therefor” and I’m here to tell you that it worked! I caught your attention.

Therefor is a real word, with its own definition and a rare, but useful, application. Therefore means for that reason.

The attacker was at the door, for that reason we locked the door and called the police. The attacker was at the door, therefore we locked the door and called the police.

Therefor, on the other hand, means for that. Not for that reason. Simply for that. I am here to write.

More than one of you know I’m using it incorrectly.

Complete the application and include the paperwork required for the application. Complete the application and include the paperwork therefor.

This leads into today’s post. It’s about writing, a commitment to writing, and a habit of writing looking for a way to survive. Although I’ve written for as long as I can remember, I’ve only once used to as a source of income; I did quite well. Change, I am reminded, is a constant in my life.

I’ve had many opportunities in my life to start anew. Almost anything can be taken as a reason to shake things up and look for rot.

My definition of success comes with an ethical rider attached. If this rider is breached, the results are not a success. Motivation is less a factor than action. I’m confused when I act appropriately and don’t succeed, but I’m not demoralized by it. I’ve succeeded and failed in about equal quantities; though I cannot measure the quality of each success and failure, I can say that I’ve come out ahead on the success side.

Failure is as much a state of mind as anything. There are real consequences to failure. Every setback presents a new direction. Failure is a corrective action. Hopefully, it’s less serious than a heart attack.

Success, too, is a mental and projected state. The consequences of success are not always evident. Yes, you may have reached the acme of action and yet, have you acted with care for anyone, anything other than your self. The rotted fruit can taste so sweet.

You can make some mean drink with rotted fruit, take the top of your head right off, reveal the universe, but it doesn’t make you coherent.

Today I am starting, again, just as I do most any day because the racket of the day before has driven my plans into disarray. What was the racket?

I write. That’s what I do. I do other, day-to-day things, like bathing, dressing, eating, chatting, and so on. But, while most of you are settling in for an evening of television, company, or a night out, I’m curled up in a chair imagining new worlds, new answers, new solutions. That chair is usually positioned in front of my laptop or a notebook. I’m writing.

I wake up in the morning and sort through my projects. If nothing is time sensitive, good luck with that, then I pick the project that needs the most teeth. I choose the project that is either underdone or overdone and I chew it into something more palatable. Then I write the layers on top of that carcass and voila, a story arises.

I write for myself. I write for a potential audience. But, mostly I just trust that if I write what I feel then the audience will come. I know that reality is somewhere in between those two extremes (me only – everyone else).

I do write non-fiction, technical, and other straight-faced types of writing. Fiction and poetry fill my wee heart with delight because, unlike reality, I can fix things in fiction and, even more importantly, I can leave them broken.

I write for other people. With an idea, an outline, or a more detailed structure, I can write what another cannot. With a few short interviews, I collect what information I need and then I sit down and do for them what they haven’t been able to do for themselves, I write their story down. They can show me a picture and tell me five things about a person, then I write it down for them.

Creativity may seem like an odd bedfellow for someone writing other people’s ideas down, but it feels creative. As an empath, I drink in the essence of the story and

I write. It’s how I live.

My March Madness

This has nothing to do with sports. If that’s what you’re looking for, move on. This is about death, grief, and mourning.
It was serendipitous, I suppose, that it was this month that I heard part of a CBC interview with Joan Didion in which she said (I’m paraphrasing) that grief is the emotion and mourning is the process (at least that was my takeaway). That took my breath away for a moment.
It came at a time when I was wondering if I was ever going to live through a March without mourning or going mad. It has been 18 years. I’ve granted myself some grace in this and permitted myself to continue to process my grief through mourning. It’s something to practice.
Sudden death always seems tragic. In these particular deaths, it was an accident, there remains the wreckage that littered its way through the family. Relationships died. Relationships that had been broken were gradually amended. Children became adults. Adults became teenagers, sullen and angry, lashing out at inappropriate targets, and, generally, acting like life had let them down. Through death, we are alive.
For 18 years I’ve marked the passings and wondered about grief and loss. This year I thought about the phrase: the good die young. I decided this was crap. The good don’t necessarily die young, but whenever one dies we think: “Wait! I’m not ready! Come back!” and that makes them seem too young to die, no matter their age. It is we who are too young.

Losar and Renewal

Tomorrow is Losar, the Tibetan New Year. I’ve just learned that the word losar is composed of two words, lo means “year ago” and sar means “new fresh.” I like this idea of refreshing the year. Also, this is a Fire Rooster year (it’s all over the place as the Firebird year).

I also like the idea of taking Fire Rooster and regurgitating Firebird, the year of the Phoenix. A year of renewal, burn the old to give birth to the new. A year of reincarnation for us all, some of us without even dying.

What I don’t like about it is the whole burn it down part of the Phoenix story. That might be my entitlement talking. Though I don’t think I’m entitled, I know I am. I’m white and middle-class. I’m so middle-class that even in poverty I act like I’m still middle-class; my clothes are well-made, if worn. I actually had to buy new pants after I lost weight when my Fibromyalgia morphed into IBS.

I eat organic, locally grown food. I buy heavily during the summer and I preserve food for the winter. That’s both madly old-fashioned and radically new-fashioned (or recently enabled and re-fashioned, I can’t decide). I let go of other things: television, movies, concerts, restaurants, live music, vacations, and more. My priorities dictate my choices.

I mostly feel invisible in the larger culture. In spite of some amazing steps forward in our society, I’m still lost from the crowd. I’m the gazelle sacrificed to the hunters by lot; my lot is that I’m not a member of the herd.

May we have a year in which we come to our senses, may we learn this lesson: “politically correct” is a phrase used to demean people who exhibit kindness, empathy, and curiosity about others. That dangerous other.

Let us rise from the ashes of our horror and dismay, let us be renewed, let us be politically correct where that means: be considerate, treat others as you think they want to be treated, and think about more than yourself. The idea of self-sacrifice shouldn’t be applied to mean that those who disagree need to sacrifice themselves on the altar of rage.

All the same, I’m nervous. I feel like I did the day I headed home from school knowing there was a crowd waiting for me. When I came around the hill in the middle of our complex and I saw nearly every member of my grade seven class standing there, with Kelly Dewar standing in front, pissed as pissed can get. My feet started dragging but I walked straight up to her. I had lots of practice at this. I carefully removed my precious glasses and put them on the curb of the parking lot we’d gathered ourselves in, everyone moved to encircle me, and Kelly beat the crap out of me while I stood there, arms limp and useless at my sides. That’s what I feel like these days, that I’ve come around the hill and I see disaster standing firmly in my way. I don’t run, I don’t fight, I don’t even hide.

Just as an aside, as a kid I hadn’t heard the word phoenix and had sounded it out to end up with something that sounded more like phonics.

Pain Management

I’ve been working on a project to do with pain management and mindfulness. It’s an arts & crafts sort of thing and it was presented as the final exercise in my pain management programme.

The pain management programme was a mindfulness, an awareness-based system of guided meditations and tools for self-examination. The idea was to look at your relationship with your pain and fine-tune the push-and-pull elements. What the ? That means that you look at a variety of places in our lives where pain, when you have chronic pain, comes to reside and get triggered. I should have just said this but I’m going to leave this as is to show you that it’s difficult to name stuff honestly, For example, eating; one week we had the exercise to eat consciously once and come back to class to share notes. It’s not compare notes, it’s to share notes. The class specifically requested we not “advise” each other but, rather, simply share our experiences.

That’s difficult to do, as well. Honesty is difficult for most of us. We’re not a particularly self-interrogatory species. We have gradually built up the ability to look at our own experiences without condemnation or other judgements. We have pictures in our heads, started before we had language, that describe our perceptions of the world and our place in it.

The project I’m working on is a maze. It came to me in the last days before the end of the course. I’d already dug out an old poem that echoed my relationship with my pain but this came to me with a doodle and an ‘x’. I turned it into a maze and now I’m turning the maze into a game. The pain maze has life hurdles in the dead ends; the game will have more decision points and I wish there was a way to make the board game such that you couldn’t tell you are heading for a dead-end. How many people play board games these days and how many of them would like one about making your way through life’s little dramas.

That’s what chronic pain can feel like: a drama that just keeps going without resolution or end. There are days I simply want it to stop, even if it means death; it’s exhausting. There are days I’m so frustrated that I can’t manage more than 4 hours of half-assed thinking and doing. The half-assed thinking is clearing up as my drug regimen becomes more tailored to my chemical soup factory (AKA my body). So, that straightens that out, clearly my body affects my mind and I might not be crazy to think that my mind is inside my body (but I still don’t believe that is 100% true).

Chronic pain keeps me in my body to a degree I’ve never experienced before. An unpleasant degree, as it would happen. I think ecstasy would become painful if maintained full on at all times. Our bodies are not built for ‘all out’ all the time. We’re over-burdened with fast, constant stressors, we city-dwelling, global-villager people. Becoming broken has given me an opportunity to step out of the rip tide and back onto the beach. Striving is becoming a thing of my past.

That puts me at odds with the dominate society where I live, but I’m happy in my eddy and growing more confident day by day.

It’s that time

I’ve avoided New Year’s resolutions. I know that 2017 has some very particular challenges for me. It might make some sense to make resolutions, but I’d rather make plans. Resolutions tend to be pie-in-the-sky whereas I prefer concrete action plans. Here’s my goal, here’s what’s needed to get there, here’s how I can handle those needs, and what are my contingencies, drop-dead points, and, finally, at what point do I shrug and say “ain’t happening.”

I don’t know how you approach life. With PTSD, depression, chronic pain, and more I tend to be more cautious now. A good plan makes me feel as though I have both a belt and suspenders on. (I used to wear a belt and suspenders, I have photographic evidence.)

Unfortunately, the same caution that makes a plan pretty much mandatory also means I’ve become risk adverse. I was always risk adverse in particular areas of life, but since becoming disabled, I find that I can barely even spell risky behaviours out.

While the rest of the world was watching horrified, I was peeking and sneaking away from the big events of 2016. I spent more time adjusting to being more in the world than I have been since 2011. New medications made my mentation clearer. My anxiety level, though smeared across a larger landscape, was thinner, lower, less of a hinderance. Having an anxiety issue gave me some space, oddly enough, to just freak out when it was appropriate. Dig in, shit your pants, get cleaned up, and carry on. My new process.

People died in 2016. Some were important in their fields, some were famous, some were infamous, and too many were unarmed civilians in too many wars. We could almost say that Aleppo might as well have died. Some say America is on its deathbed now.

I don’t understand why people have been tearing their hair out about all the deaths. Maybe that is why Carrie Fisher’s death struck me so deeply, in comparison to others that should have affected me even more deeply. It was a transference of confusion.

Death doesn’t confuse me. I know it’s here, amongst us, yet we like it to knock softly before entering. We like someone to come along and tell us the cat is on the roof, just as a lead-up to eventually telling us the cat is dead. When my father, nephew, and mother died each death was unexpected. My father and nephew died together in an accident. My mother died of a heart attack one night, nobody is sure which night since she was found only when she’d been dead at least two weeks. It was creepy listening to my voice messages on her phone while clearing out her apartment.

I have two important threads in this years: location and vocation. I don’t think I have much longer on this planet, at least I hope I don’t, so I want to let go of some life-long fears and do what I want to do instead of what I think others will approve.

Lest it be said…

I paced the floor during the hours between the news that Carrie Fisher had collapsed while enroute to LAX and the news, finally, that she had died. I don’t know why I got so concerned about Carrie Fisher. I had a feeling Leonard Cohen would die; anyone who heard his last album should have heard the end in his voice. I’m playing the only George Michael piece I own: Faith. I didn’t expect any other deaths, but I wasn’t horribly surprised, death by death, until Carrie Fisher.

I guess part of it is that I’ve only recently had my attention drawn to Carrie Fisher. Who she was turns out to be someone I would have loved, and probably really liked. I love smart women. I love smart people but I prefer smart women. Maybe it was that the first and only thing I’d seen her in was the first Star Wars trilogy; I was not that into the movies, nor did I find the characters compelling, but the series created such a storm in our culture that one could not avoid being drawn in. I love fiction, I love science fiction, and yeah, the stories aren’t great, the characters are pretty thin, and they spent a ton of money creating some of the most amazing visuals. I think that’s what finally caught me, for the movies.

Carrie Fisher still wasn’t on my radar.

It’s only recently that her star rose on my horizon. Her wit bowled me over. I saw her in a couple of interviews and after thinking, who? what? I started to think about Carrie Fisher and probably in a manner of which she’d approve. I was wondering. Who doesn’t like a little wonder thrown their way? Not the grim-faced sort, where someone wonders about you and shakes their head. No, the wow, there really is magic in the world, kind.

People have been throwing themselves down in fits of agony over the losses they’ve experienced, or we the consuming public have had showered down upon us. I see no need. 2016 is no more hideous than many other years I’ve lived through. When the horror lives inside your own home, you don’t need falling stars to take you off your balance.
I’ve lived through several hells and I’m scorched. But I am not afraid of fire. Well, yes I am, but in a most intelligent way. I am cautious around fire, it can be useful, but it can take you away in a most unpleasant way.

I hope that while she was waiting about for the plug to be pulled, Carrie had a relaxed time; I wouldn’t want her to have suffered any more than she already had.