Friday, December 31, 2010


Got a call around noon today from a friend in southern Thailand. She was in a bar and it was already past midnight and the year 2011 where she was, whereas I was wandering around a spare and nearly empty post-dance-party house, looking out at a mild last day of 2010.

It was another reminder, that call, that we can talk to each other across time and space, but each of us can be in only one place at a time. Sometimes as I read a description in a book. or as I daydream, I am transported to another place or situation or long to be elsewhere. But fact is, I am where I am (sort of a Popeye-ish expression!!) and not elsewhere.

We can yearn to "have it all", but in fact that's not possibile. We must accept that at any time we are who we are, where we are. If we want something different, then we have to make hard choices and exert ourselves to change things. There's no point whining and yearning! We just need to get out there and commit, take risks, do what's necessary to try to change those things we want changed.

This sounds preachy, and I guess it is. Sorry if I'm bugging you! But I've got more to say on this..

Whether it's political action and social justice, or personal transformation that we want, none of it happens without effort and commitment, and for most of it also we also need the help and support of friends and family and colleagues.

So let's make 2011 a year of building networks of mutual respect, affection, and effectiveness, so we can move forward with strength to work for whatever changes and transformations we feel are important.

And let's remember to have compassion for each other and to help each other as we are able to. In the end we're all in the same boat: Each of us is finding our way, making mistakes sometimes, of course, and needing help and mentoring and understanding as we muddle along.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Just back in the city after a wonderfully renewing thirty-six hours up north in Grey County. Friends were having a post-Christmas drop-in party yesterday, the weather looked clear (an unusual bonus at this time of year in Grey County), and I had people I wanted to see, so I headed out yesterday morning in the little red Honda Fit. I had cross country skis with me, a jacket and vest, wind pants, a fur coat, ski gloves and a hat, and other oddments of clothing, and well as presents for various people, and a bottle of wine.

There were some patches of wind-swept snow white-out as I drove up, but the roads were dry and I got to my first stop in Markdale easily by noon. My wonderful aunt, youngest of my father's four sisters, is now 82, a young, light on her feet 82. One of her older sisters died two weeks ago, the first of the four to go, and it's a hard thing to loose a sister, whatever your age, whatever hers. Still, there's a resilience that comes with age, and my aunt is plenty strong, good-humoured, and resilent. She's sharp as a tack and a treat to talk to. We gossiped and sipped soup, and then it was time for me to move on.

Next stop was friends north of Markdale who have a second home in a log house on a farm with beautiful woods, pine plantations and hardwood forests, and several ponds and swamps. It's especially spectacular in winter. We went out for a cross country ski, the snow perfect and fluffy with firm snow underneath. Part of the time we were following an already-broken trail, part of the time cutting across an open swamp or breaking trail through the woods. it was as if we were moving through a succession of marvelous rooms in a spectacular outdoor castle or mansion. Each vista was more lovely than the last. There was a plantation of straight-trunked pines, each patched with blobs of white snow, white on reddish brown trunks, lined up in hallucinatorily regular rows. One row was more widely spaced, and down it went a single line of ski tracks, an invitation to disappear into a linear fantasy, is how it felt.

The sun was sinking early, low on the southern horizon, as speckled clouds made sky patterns and the snow became gilded with a soft pink-yellow. It was only 4.30, but at this time of year, that's late in the day. Three of us slid stride by stride abreast across an untracked pond, into the fading warm light. What a magic time. Today my thighs remind me that it wasn't magic but muscle power that carried me through that snowy landscape!

And finally from there I headed west toward the party. The sky was a conflagration of pink-orange threaded with horizontal bands of deep blue-grey. Mesmerizing. But in less than fifteen minutes it had faded to pearl-grey, like a dowsed bonfire, not a spark left. I parked out on the road, then walked up a snowy lane to the party, where friends and a hot wood stove and food and drink and music blended into a sense of welcome and ease.

Later I drove back towards the city through the dark night. I stopped in at friends' whose house is always open and always generous. Lucky traveller, to be sheltered for the night with friendship.

Now I'm back home in Toronto, people from out of town have come by unexpectedly, and tomorrow I'll meet them at Ideal coffee and walk with them through Kensington Market, probably ending with a north Chinese meal at Asian Legend. After that it will be time to clear the rugs and make some food so that we can dance our way through the evening on the 30th with friends of all ages.

Next question: What food shall we make for the party? inari sushi perhaps, and sticky rice too (carbs give good energy for dancing), some cheese to go with Evelyn's Crackers made by Dawn and Ed, and nam prik num, and maybe a chicken salad Viet- or Thai-style...

AND A NOTE ABOUT A NEW BOOK: A few weeks ago I finished reading the latest book by Ma Thanegi, a remarkable woman, a witty and engaged writer who lives in Rangoon/Yangon. It's now available on and it's called: Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy: One Woman's Mid-Life Travel Adventures on Myanmar's Great River by Ma Thanegi, published by Things Asian Press.

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Still clear and cold here, with slanting sun that warms in the middle hours of the day, but only a little!

I've had a cold for the last week or so, a completely predictable consequence of flying to Toronto from Thailand at this cold- and flu-season time of year. Finally yesterday, Christmas morning, I felt light enough in myself to head out for a small jog. What a treat.

I headed out late, at about 9.30, for it took me awhile to assemble a cold-weather outfit. In the end I unearthed odd bits of ancient clothing: I had on green wind pants with cotton tights under, and a ratty silk long sleeved undershirt topped by a windbreaker; over that I layered a funky bright red vest I bought ages ago in France, and on my head a purple wool hat. A neighbour who saw me at the end of my run, sweaty and messy, said "the Christmas jogger!" so like an overdecorated Christmas tree did I look, in my red and green and every other colour combo.

The run felt easy (the first one after a break often does feel (deceptively) easy). Sidewalks were dry with only a few little patches of ice. There was dry cold snow on the grassy areas in the university, but only a little, so the grass showed through in patches.

There was no-one around, hardly a car on the road, and all shops were closed. The only people I met were the occasional person walking a dog, two other joggers, and a couple of people riding bicycles (brr!!). I called out "happy Christmas" to everyone. Some had headphones on, or were otherwise tuned out, but most greeted me back. I felt as if we had a special task to assert warmth of feeling in the cold air and bare streets.

When I got to Kensington Market, all deserted, I came across four or five different solitary guys. Each was hunched into himmself, alone-looking. I was reminded that when you are alone on a holiday day, when you have no family or friends around, and perhaps nowhere safe to stay, the big holidays are bleak indeed. And that's even more true on a cold day when everything is closed.

But on Baldwin Street in Kensington Market I finally came on a place that was open, a small independent coffee shop. "Espresso Bar: All Day Breakfast" it said on the outside. I went in, not because I wanted a coffee (I needed to keep moving to get home; I thought if I stopped I wouldn't be able to pick up and keep running afterward), but just to say hello and thank-you to the young women who'd opened for business, giving people a place they could go for company and warmth. We chatted briefly, and then as I headed back out, in through the door came one of the lonely street guys. "Coffee?" "Yes please" he said with feeling.

The rest of my day, once I reached home, was lived in warmth and comfort, starting with a hot bath, then cleaning and cooking, then welcoming friends and feasting on all that they and we had prepared. I was grateful to have had my morning out, a chance to move my body and take in lungfuls of fresh air, a chance to see the city stripped of its busy-ness for once, and a reminder not to take anything for granted...

I hope your week, the lovely blank of time between Chritmas and new Years, is rich with friends and new horizons.

And in case you are still in the mood for cooking something sweet for yourself or for friends, here's another easy recipe for a biscotti-like treat, adapted from a recipe in HomeBaking, a book I worked hard on and now find especially useful in wintertime! This recipe is for paximadia, Greek twice-cooked breads, but these are sweet, a Cretan version of paximadia, made with olive oil and flavoured with wine and spices. Very simple to make, very easy to eat, so though in theory they keep well, you won't have a storage issue!!

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees fahrenheit and place a rack in the centre. Put out a large baking sheet. In a bowl stir together 1 cup of olive oil (preferably Greek) with 3/4 cup sugar (I like using demerara, for fun). Add the remaining ingredients and stir them in: 1/4 cup wine (white or red) and 2 tablespoons orange juice; 1 teaspoon each cinnamon and ground cloves; 1/2 teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda; and 3 cups all-purpose flour.

You'll have a pasty moist dough, a little crumbly. Turn it onto a work surface; cut it into four equal pieces. Shape each into a long flat loaf about 3/4 inch high, three inches across and eight or so inches long. Transfer to the baking sheet, lining them up side by side but not touching. With a knife or dough scraper make parallel cuts crosswise on each loaf, about 1/3 to 1/2 inch apart, and cutting down almost right through the loaf.

Place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, until firm. Take out and let cool for fifteen minutes, lower heat to 250, and cut through each slice mark to make individual cookies. Lay them on their sides (on one cut side in other words) and place back in the oven to bake for about 20 minutes, until very firm and dried out.

Let cool completely on a rack before storing in a cookie tin or jar.

I like dunking these in red wine, or eating them with a strong cheddar. They make a good house present too.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


How can it be a week since I last posted here? The answer's simple. After any long trip, there's the whirling messiness of landing: jetlag, of course, and then a sore throat-cold-cough combo that lingers, and bills and mail and banking to sort through, and trip notes and photos to start sorting through... And at Christmas time there are more than the usual number of post-trip drop-ins and phone calls and lunch and supper bookings with friends and extended family. Everyone seems to have a party or get-together in this season. It's kind of dizzying.

Last night I was out at a friendly relaxed pleasurable tenth anniversary party at Lula Lounge, a world-music venue and comfortable bar on Dundas West here in Toronto. I walked home from there, about three miles, in the clear cold night, wearing running shoes for comfort, and walking on sidewalks occasionally dusted with a little snow but mostly bare and easy. It was a good decision, to walk. It grounded me and brought me securely into the "now" for the first time since I landed here nearly a week ago.

This morning I woke with a pretty clear head and contemplated my to-do list. it's fairly elastic, but includes decision-making about which of the things I brought back from Burma and Thailand will go to which people as presents, calling several friends and my aunts who live far away to touch base, and getting some work done. We all know what won't get reached. Right. The work! And that's as it should be.

It is so important, after all, to take time out and focus on the "soft" things which are in the end the essentials. For me that means unhurried time for conversation and connection with people near and dear, and with new people too; and meditative time, when I can let my mind drift.

Some of that mind-drifting was happening yesterday as I was baking. Yes, of course, that can work fine, especially when I'm kneading a bread dough for example, but is a little risky when there are cookies in the oven! No catastrophes to report this time, I'm happy to tell you.

I wanted to set out here in short form the easiest recipe, and always a success, for "Mandel Melbas", thin twice-baked cookies in the biscotto tradition, a recipe I was given by my dear friend Dina, whose mother's it was.

You will need 1 cup of toasted whole almonds, so if yours are raw, just toast them in a hot skillet until they are aromatic, and don't let them burn, then set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 and grease and dust with flour a large (9 by 5 or so) bread pan. You'll also need two baking sheets later on.

Beat four large or extra-large eggs together with three-quarters cup of sugar and then stir in one and a half cups all-purpose flopur to make a smooth batter. You can add a half teaspoon almond extract if you want; I never do. Stir in the almonds, then pour or spoon the batter into the bread pan. Bake in the centre of the oven until lightly browned, about 40 minutes (and do the skewer test to make sure the "cake" is cooked through). Let stand ten minutes, then take from the pan and let cool. Wrap in foil or plastic and freeze for an hour or so.

Set your oven to 300, slice the "loaf" very thinly (6 to 8 slices per inch) and lay the slices on the two baking sheets. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until firm and lightly touched with brown.

This is where you must not let your mind drift too much, or they will burn!

A lot of my batch this week got eaten the first day, but really they are even better after they've had a day to crisp up, delicate and beautiful.

Happy holiday times to you all...

I'm off to meet a friend for lunch. Such a treat.

PS: And speaking of distractions this week, how about that lovely big solstice full moon. Amazing, and even more that she was eclipsed and then re-emerged to light the western sky as dawn was breaking here...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


After the sometimes-grind of riding on rough sandy tracks in Pagan, on a rackety bicycle with an uncomfortable seat, I am finding my bicycling here in Chiang Mai an easy glide. (Don’t get me wrong: I loved riding around in that pastoral landscape dotted with enormous stone chedis and ruins from another time, but the cycling itself was sometimes onerous and uncomfortable.) Here I’m again on a rented one-speed, true, and the seat can’t be raised quite high enough, but still, paved roads and a relatively healthy bicycle make riding the streets feel effortless.

And so it is with many things, right? Hot and cold running water we take for granted until we return from a trip where we were without, and then they feel like a luxury. And in the emotional realm too, we can easily forget and take for granted the love and kindness, and the pleasurable familiarity and acceptance of our friends. The return after a trip out among strangers is the time when we are reminded how much we rely on and appreciate long friendships and family.

But I digress. I wanted to talk about the pleasures of these last days. They include a bicycle ride out the still-beautiful Chiang Mai-Lamphun road. It’s busy with traffic, and very narrow. It can’t be widened, for on either side, like a guard of honour, stand tall tall teak trees. They’re spectacular survivors of an era when most of northern Thailand was covered with forest. Now they mark an old route to the small charming town of Lamphun. People in a hurry take the new big highway farther east, so that eventually, once I’d crossed or passed under three ring roads, the traffic was much lighter: I could raise my eyes from the road to look around, and I could have the luxury of taking off my uncomfortable helmet and feeling the breeze in my hair.

Pedalling a one speed along a flat road, round and round, is kind of mindless, like any repetitive motion (plain knitting and crochet come to mind). But when there’s a pleasant little breeze, and fields of rice stubble, and small houses with cascading pink bougainvillea, and banana trees and papaya trees with green fruit hanging, and gardens with rows of tender greens against the dark soil, and children playing and puppies ambling and small streams and little shops selling simple rice and curry or fried noodles or grilled pork on a stick, then the repetitive motion happens without my thinking about it, for my eyes and imagination are engaged elsewhere.

I reached an intersection about twenty kilometers from Chiang Mai. I was more than halfway to Lamphun, at the edge of a town famous for its basketware called Saraphi. It was time to start looping back towards home, so I turned right to head west toward the river. Another ten K or so, after several small sleepy villages, brought me to a bridge across the Ping River, and from there I headed back north. Now the huge blue bulk of Doi Sutep, the mountain that overlooks Chiang Mai, loomed before me. The day was misty and overcast, so it looked like a mirage, a dream-mountain.

The small road I was on followed the river, bending and winding with it, pausing occasionally for a small cross road and bridge to the other side. The river was green and calm, glowing with reflected light from the bright-overcast sky, sometimes rippling quietly. There was little traffic, little noise of any kind apart from birdsong. I lost all sense of time...

But all good things come to an end, and so eventually I reached the busy-ness of the city. It was time to put my helmet back on and focus on navigating the traffic.

There WAS a bonus to getting back to Chiang Mai. I had begun to dream of lunch somewhere along the way. As the morning wore on my dreams became focussed on the Issaan food at a small place called Toy off Loi Kroh Road. What a great end to a long ride, that meal of perfectly balanced som tam (shredded green papaya pounded with dried shrimp, chiles, garlic, etc and dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, a hit of sugar...), spectacular grilled chicken (guy yang), and sticky rice.

And it was just noon. I still had the rest of the day to look forward to...

POSTSCRIPT: I’m just about to post this, as I sit in the Chiang Mai airport early in the morning, checked in and waiting to fly away to Toronto via Bangkok and Hong Kong. I have a sweater and my wool shawl (they go with me to Burma to keep me wrapped and warm in the chill of the air con busses); there are socks in my handcarry that I can put on in Hong Kong. All of which is to say that the climate change from Chiang Mai to Toronto at this time of year is always a shocker and a little tricky to navigate. Good-bye tee-shirts and casual bicycling around in sandals, and good-bye bowls of broth and rice noodles for breakfast at open-air stalls, at least for the next month. There are lovely compensations though! I am SO looking forward to time with Dom and Tashi, those wonderful guys, and with good friends, in the coming days and weeks. I hope you’re anticipating some holiday time with those you love.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Because blogspot has been unavailable to me, I’ve had a couple of extra days to reflect on my time in Burma these last weeks. My days there felt so full at the time, and in hindsight the whole trip now appears even richer to me. The richness was of the best kind, a generosity of good luck and wonderful encounters.

A few months ago an old friend who lives on the other side of the country sent me an email asking if she could join me for some of my travels in Burma. I enjoy her company and know that she’s wonderfully open and resilient too: I don’t have to take care of her or worry about her. But still, I ended up writing her a letter that said, I’m very sorry, but I think I need to travel by myself. I’m sure she felt hurt and rebuffed; I would have in her shoes.

But it was and is true, that travel is very different when I am travelling with another rather than on my own. With another there is company and conversation, a chance to talk over the day’s events and have ambitions and fresh ideas about plans for the following days. On my own there is loneliness and there are times of self doubt, or self-criticism, and of anxiety. But still the plusses outweight those minuses.

And the plusses of solo travel? The biggest one is my opennness to new people and chance encounters. There’s more room for the unexpected connection with a stranger when I travel alone. And it’s those encounters that enrich travel. The casual conversation with my Burmese seatmate on the overnight bus (a woman from northern Shan State), the monk and his cousin-brother who took me temple-hopping in Rangoon on an earlier trip, none of this would have happened if I’d been travelling with a friend, enclosed in the cocoon of familiar company.

Another, related plus of solo travel is that it leaves open more possibilities for serendipity, for unexpected events. Yes, they are often connected to the chance encounters, but not always. And I love the unplanned and unexpected. I don’t want to know what tomorrow will bring; I want to discover it as I go. For if I did only what I planned to do, or what I could imagine before the trip began, then my trip would be defined and shaped by my limited knowledge and imagination. But if I am open to the unexpected, then the sky’s the limit.

I was sitting in a large teashop in Rangoon the other day, drinking black coffee (in Burma it is served like black tea, sweetened with sugar and with a wedge of lime alongside) and eating “nan-piar” a tandoor-baked unleavened flatbread, when an older man came over and said hello. Japanese from Osaka, a retired busniessman, he has been teaching Japanese in Mandalay, at the YMCA, for three years. He wants to help broaden the minds and imagination of young Burmese, and he’s doing it, student by student. He’s an interesting guy whom I hope to meet up with again, open and optimistic, and also generous-minded.

A woman I stayed with in Pakokku ten days ago, a small town up the Irrawaddy River from Pagan, taught me some delish Kachin dishes, a real piece of luck. I also learned a lot of central Burmese food technique from her daughter and from her daughter-in-law, a brilliant natural cook. They made fish curry, frying the fish first, then putting it into the long-simmered sauce just before serving. The chicken curry was a new version to me, and so was the way they fried chicken (simmering it first in a little water, until the water evaporated, before frying it in oil). The salads they made, one of green mango and another of peanut paste, were spectacular.

But best of all was the chance, as a solo traveller, to become, if only for a few days, a part of an extended family. I watched in the morning as the daughter put thanaka powder on her ten-year old son’s face, and on another morning as he did his own before school, carefully smoothing it into his skin, then using a toothbrush to make sure his eyebrows were smooth and perfect. A granddaughter, a beautiful tall twenty-year old engineering student, was going to a wedding next day. What to wear? We sat around one evening as she tried on a couple of outfits (both were traditional: short-sleeved fitted top over a longyi, a full-length straight-wrapped sarong). We all agreed which one was best, though she didn’t seem convinced. Next day she got dressed in the less cheerful combo(greys and blacks, elegance but no warmth), but then suddenly at the last minute changed her mind and opted for the pink top etc that we had all preferred. I took a photo of her in the pink, looking shyly beautiful as she headed off to the wedding on a motorcycle.

Pakokku sees only a trickle of foreigners, so I was a curiosity. Several times I was taken by the arm, by an older woman, and led to a monastery or temple and shown around. Each time we’d be followed by a circus of kids, mostly boys, who gambolled and laughed and cartwheeled and showed off in the freshest and noisiest and happiest way. The monks we’d meet smiled at the kids or tuned them out. There was no scolding, no false reverance, instead a wonderful exuberance.

There are urgencies in Burma and pain and suffering, especially along the borders, but elsewhere too. And at the same time there is this potential in the young, an energy and imagination. Totalitarian states clamp down on that energy, but from the things I heard from NGO workers and from others living in Burma, there is action, movement forward, even so. The internet is a huge boon, a help in networking of all kinds. And now there are growing self-help networks, some focussing on education (English language, civil society, conflict resolution) or health care (improving both access and quality), others on environmental change and sustainable agriculture.

And with the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi there’s a perceptible feeling of relief in people, almost a lightness in the air as you walk along the street, especially in Rangoon...

PS I discovered that my problem with making a new posting lies with Safari. I tried opening "new post" with Firefox, and here I am. Apologies for the delay and my techno ignorance!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Here it is at last, the day I get back into Burma. I have tried not to get too attached to the idea of getting a visa, but of course the hope was there, always, and the worry that I wouldn't. And in the meantime I've been reading my way through stack of books of travel and history, mostly history, of Burma and area. I sometimes feel I'm drowning in it, but that's the only way I can understand things, by immersing in a rather over-the-top way.

The visa came through a couple of days ago and this afternoon I have a ticket for the direct Chiang Mai to Rangoon flight.

Among all the other blockages the totalitarian regime in Burma imposes is a block on many websites, including blogger (though the New York Times etc is all available, at least until they start charging for online access; that business decision will be very harmful for people who need the oxygen of outside news and ideas and have only the internet sporadically for access) . So I won't be writing here again until after my return to Chiang Mai on December 9. And even then, there will be lots that I cannot say.

The important thing in travelling in a place like Burma is to try to do no harm to people there. That means not asking people political questions unless you are in private and they have raised the issue first, not writing about indiscreet things that people tell you (at least, not in a way that can identify your source), etc. The fact is that all of us who travel in Burma are affected by the regime, work around it, try to avoid direct trouble, censor ourselves. These small infringements on my freedom, limitations that I am asking for, in fact, at some level that I am choosing to take on, by travelling there, are nothing compared to the restrictions on people who live in Burma and have no choice in the matter. Yet despite the fear and tightness and limitations of life, people in Burma are of course still human beings with hopes and ambitions and the normal cares about doing well for their children and coming through on their family and religious obligations.

And that's why I think it's important to go there, and to bring back news of the everyday there. What is more "everyday" than food and cooking? And so that's why this project of mine, to learn what I can about food traditions in various places in Burma and to write about them. I hope that through the book people outside the country can connect in an immediate way with the humanity of people living there. It's a small effort, this, compared to the heroism of political activism and on-the-ground aid work with refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Still, as my mother used to say (she was a physio who worked with disabled children all her adult life), even a small contribution can make a difference.

This trip I am hoping to spend time in Rangoon and then up in and around Bagan, where I've never been. it is the site of an ancient capital, full of stupas and other ruins, a magnificent site especially before the devastating 1975 earthquake, and now diminished further by ham-handed reconstructions and bad lighting etc etc imposed by the regime. Yes, that's why I've not gone until now. It is a heartland symbol of the country, and also in the Irrawaddy valley south of Mandalay, rice country. I am still a beginner with Burmese food, despite the recipes i now have under my belt. I'm hoping to emerge from this trip with more from the villages and small markets...

Since the rainy season went on late in the region, the countryside is still green and lush. And that's another reason for heading to central Burma, for last time I was there, in February and March of this year, it was the middle and end of dry season, and the landscape was parched and fairly bare.

Wish me luck and good judgement, please!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


In the end I did go down to the river last night, along with a cast of thousands. Tonight is the big night, the actual full moon night that is Loy Kratong, but everyone likes to stretch the fun quotient so the festival in Chiang Mai always starts way ahead with early fireworks and partying. Lots of streets were closed and filled with people, mostly young people, eating, and walking, and buying fireworks...

I was headed to the Brasserie to hear Tuk and other musicians (and they were stunningly wonderful, but that's another story). But first I had to get there, a easy ten minute walk normally (the Brasserie is on the other bank of the river across from Wararot Market), but an elaborate and slow dance in the crush of people.

On the footbridge over the river, packed with people standing and watching and with others, like me, trying to thread their way through the crowd to cross to the other side, in both directions, the view was wonderful. The other bridges are outlined in lights that reflected beautifully in the river's smooth water. Occasionally a small long-tailed boat would come through, rippling the pattern with its wake for a moment. In the sky was an endless moving and shifting set of new constellations, warm dots of light in the darkness. Yes there was a full moon, but its light seemd cold and remote compared to the warm glow of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of fire-heated paper lanterns that drifted up and up high into the sky and sideways in air currents and eddies, making ever-shifting patterns.

On the ground by the river and on balconies and streetside were small groups of people busy unfolding and lighting yet more lanterns. They are four to six feet tall, paper cylinders held open at the bottom by a metal frame that supports a container of some kind of gas. You light it, hold the cylinder on the ground as the hot air from the flame gradually inflates it, and eventually starts to lift it. (And if you are like most of the young people I saw, you pause and pose holding the lit lantern, the flame burning bright in the paper(!!), while you each snap photos of the scene.) A further refinement, really fabulous when it works, is that just before you let it go, you hook a streamer of extra fireworks on the frame, then touch the end to the fire. As the lantern lifts and sways its way up into the sky, the firework sputters colourful sparks and then about a minute later, higher in the sky, erupts to leave a shining trail of glitter. Fabulous!

All that light and energy directed upward felt so optimistic, a moment to forget anxieties or tomorrow's cares.

And below, the traditional Loy Kratong was also happening, fire and light and hope the main ingredients there too, but in the form of lit incense sticks and small candles set into flower-decorated leaf rafts that each of us set afloat on the river. That stream of little flickering lights, carrying away our cares and expressing our hopes for tomorrow was a lovely sight, less glamorous perhaps than the lanterns, but touching... Eventually the candles flicker out or get dowsed with water somewhere on their way down the river. But the moment that you set your kratong afloat is pure hope and feeling, untarnished by thoughts of later flickering or decay.

And so once again a ritual festival embodies the arc of life and gives us a chance to think about how we are living it. This year as I watched the kratongs flicker and bob in a delicate fragile stream down the river, I thought a lot about my friend Wendy who died very recently of a swift and unrelenting cancer. Her weakened voice on the telephone ten days ago, just before I left, told me it was our last conversation. I had to strain to hear her, but her thinking was clear and sharp, and her humour too, despite her failing body, a flickering light buffeted by forces that were soon going to extinguish her. But until that moment, she was alight, alive, aware.

So that's the challenge: to keep our awareness bright, our energies focussed, our appreciativeness full and engaged, as long as there's light and life in us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The air was clear this morning, the huge bulk of Doi Sutep etched grey-blue against the paler western sky, and the breeze cool. I love the early hours here in Chiang Mai. The sun gives light but doesn’t bake, and that light is glowing and optimistic somehow.

No I’m not out for a run in the early mornings here, I am bicycling. I found a “lady’s bike”, an inelegant Chinese-made Raleigh one-speed with a black metal basket on the front and a black padded cushion on a rack over the back tire (handy for carrying a passenger). I’ve had it for two days now. So that means I’ve had two mornings of exploring routes I don’t know and places I haven’t been, or just rarely.

Yesterday I pedalled up the river, roughly northward, for about 10 km, then crossed a small bridge and headed back toward town with all the morning traffic. No, it wasn’t awful (well apart from the extra exhaust), because Thai drivers yield and are aware, rather than self-righteous. They give way for me, in that unbelievable road dance that is the norm here, in the same way as they do for a streetvendor pushing a cart, or as they would have for an oxcart not many years ago.

About this time last year I wrote about the yielding suppleness of the street traffic in Muang Mai Market here, the amazingness of no yelling or anger at the complications of getting a large truck unloaded while others are trying to get past, etc. And now I’m enjoying that same suppleness in the drivers I’m with on the roads as I pedal along, much more slowly than almost any of the traffic. It helps that there are slow scooters and people on small motorcycles loaded with schoolkids. Everyone is in it together, in the process of trying to move forward in traffic, and noone seems to be insisting on having the right of way.

What a welcome contrast with North American-style driving! There is no angry tooting of horns for example, just a rare horn in the case where a driver is tooting a warning,

Today I rode up Thapae road and across the old city and then into what I think of as the “uptown” part of Chiang Mai, with more modern shops and big two-way roads. I was looking for a Burmese restaurant I’d glimpsed a few days ago off Neimenhamen Road. It was there, but not yet open, so I had a plate of rice with two toppings: sliced squash tossed with a little egg; and ground pork fried with chopped long beans in a kind of red curry gravy enhanced greatly by fine slivers of lime leaf. It was a great start to my day. I headed back through Chiang Mai University’s leafy roads and through the old city to Chiang Mai Gate, where I stopped for a Thai coffee, “kafe ron” hot coffeee with a little sweetened condensed milk. It always comes with a second glass, this one filled with clear green tea, a chaser for the coffee. The same woman I went to all last winter is in the same place by the gate,. She greeted me with a smile (I haven’t been here for eight months) and poured my coffee before I’d asked for it.

It’s a luxury, this returning to the familiar. And it’s wonderful to, at the same time, be engaging differently with the city, thanks to the bicycle that extends my ambit, and to new and evolving friendships that warm my landscape.

This weekend is Loy Kratong, a huge festival at the November full moon each year. I haven’t been here for Loy Kratong since Dom was two, which is twenty-one years, yikes! “Kratongs” are small round floats, maybe dinner plate size, originally made of folded banana leaves or other leaves, with a candle and maybe some flowers as offerings. At dusk on the day, people traditionally take their kratong to the river or to a stream or down to the sea, light the candle, then set the kratong afloat. It carries away anything bad from the previous year and brings good luck for the coming months.

Loy Kratong has now become a huge elaborate affair here in Chiang Mai. Businesses and other organizations make huge kratongs, and lazy individuals can buy pre-made ones of course. There’s a big parade too, at some point.

I remember from years ago being frightened by the bang-bang-bang of strings of friecrackers tossed into the street everywhere, mostly by young guys of course. That noise and scariness is now hugely magnified, I’ve been told. So the best place for me in the evening this weekend is not going to be on one of the bridges or down by the water, with crowds and firecrackers and wildness, but up high. From here, in the apartment with friends, I’ll watch the fire-heated paper lanterns ascend into the dark sky....well, not so dark, because that moon will be fat and full!

I hope your full moon is rich with pleasure, and with anticipation too.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I promise this won't become a blow-by-blow of my travels, but I feel I have to write about the feelings of ridiculous lightness and pleasure that have been tickling through me since I reached my neighbourhood in Chiang Mai. It's not just the running into people whom I haven't seen since the spring, nor the softness of the air, nor the loveliness of the apartment with its views of Doi Sutep, the mountain that floats on the western horizon. No, somehow it's the feeling that I am pulling on the familiarity of this place, clothing myself in it like a well worn familiar cardigan that warms and strokes me, and also transforms me in ways I am only occasionally aware of.

The transformations that travel effects in us are special. They take place as we are unmoored from our normal context, so it's hard sometimes to know what is just changed perspective and what is transformation. And perhaps it's a distinction without a difference, because there's a continuum, from the shifting perspective as we move into new places and contexts, and the changes inside us caused by that shifting and uprooting, and then the perhaps more gradual evolutions of our attitudes and thinking as we adapt to a new place and shed some of the anxieties and expectations of the place we left.

Is this too convoluted? It is a complex and interconnected set of issues, but they're intuitively commonsense "insights" I think. And it's fun to have the time to reflect on them at this very moment of transition. There will be more...

I promised last time that there'd be some food in this, my next post. My first Thai food was early this morning, a home-cooked streetfood plate of rice with two dishes on it: stir-fried ground pork with long beans, medium hot and succulent; and beansprouts cooked with slices of firm tofu and some air-dried pork. It was a great start to the day. I sat eating, with the cook's family and a couple of other customers, by a busy lane where children of all shapes and sizes were heading to school in their uniforms, looking shiny-clean and fresh.

But then as I strolled down another lane a little later and reminded myself that I had taxi and airport and a flight to Chiang Mai ahead, I bought a second breakfast: two skewers of grilled pork (moo ping) and a small bag of sticky rice, irresistable. The whole lot came to 15 baht, or about 50 cents (the plate of rice with two dishes had cost the same). The pork was tender and succulent, slightly sweet, and aromatic with a little lemongrass. Now I've really arrived here, I thought as I sat in the sun eating.

And we'll see what comes next, but for now there's a feeling of infinite possibility, and also a contentment with the here and now. So I bask in the transformations of travel.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The sun is still fairly high in the sky, misty humid sky, here at the airport in Hong Kong. I've come in on a direct flight (completely full too) from Toronto, thank-you Air Canada, (over the pole and into Asia just like that, with no US stop, so great) and am waiting the three hours until my Thai Airways flight to Bangkok starts boarding.

I still find these transitions wonderful and exciting, from Toronto, all polyglot, but with announcements at the airport in English and French mostly, to the plane where announcements were in the two official languages plus Cantonese, to Hong Kong, where Cantonese is no longer a public address language, just English and a pure clear Beijing-style Mandarin. I've shed a continent, and also my socks and cardigan and wool shawl, as I slowly move into the subtropics.

I've heard from a travel agent in Burma that I will have to go to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok to get a visa; the prearranged visas on arrival have been cancelled for now. So I am in my usual state of having a general idea of what I'd like to do and where I want to go, but with no plans. One possibility is to try to go to Kengtung, an old Tai capital (like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Jing Hong, etc) that is due north of the so=called Golden Triangle and the Thai border town of Mae Sai. It's been possible, the last few years, to go in there, to that part of the Shan States, by getting a permit at the border, usually for one week. You can't fly or travel by land to the rest of Burma from there... I'll see how things unfold.

Enough, for now, to do this amazing thing of travelling around the world and yet staying connected: Extraordinary to be able to write this blog at a small laptop in an international airport; I've changed the time on my computer to the Hong Kong time zone; And also, as I slowly move closer to being a cosmopolitan modern traveller: I just switched my Fido SIM card out of my phone and replaced it with my Thai one. If I were truly international, of course, I'd have a HongKong SIM card, and others too (one for each country in SE Asia for example...

I'm looking forward to seeing a Thai friend, Kook, in Bangkok, overnight tonight, and then to getting to Chiang Mai, and re-entering that world of friends and food and markets and southeast Asian news and wrapping it around me.

I have a few things to report though, meantime: A friend is blogging about her cancer diagnosis and treatment, with all is lows and hardships, and also insights, here. I think it's remarkable for its clarity and lack of sentimentality. And having just been to a Wellspring event in London Ontario, I appreciate even more the need for cancer patient support that is non-medical, personal and as clear-eyed and undemanding as possible. Do have a look at the work that Wellspring (all volunteer money and a lot of volunteer labour) does with and for cancer patients and their families, here.

My next post here will probably be from Chiang Mai, with some food rather than these travelling thoughts, I expect. Meantime, back in Toronto, the guys are managing the house and all that it entails. I did get the place vacuumed and my wool sweaters washed and stored in plastic bags in the chest freezer (my latest tactic for moth prevention) and a certain amount of order established in the office. Now I can let it all go for awhile, for when that airplane takes off, even if I'm connected with the internet and phone, I do feel free of a lot of those entangling details. Now to enjoy that freedom!

Friday, November 5, 2010


Just surfacing from an afternoon nap, a little disoriented from deep intense sleeping. What a treat, that kind of sleep!

I just spent three hours at the Royal Winter Fair, partly checking out the cattle and goats and pigs etc with a friend and her wonderful four year old, and partly attending a couple of Cuisine Canada events: the annual cookbook awards (top English cookbook the elegant latest by Laura Calder; top french language a great looking book on Desserts out of Montreal); and also a young-chef cooking event.

They'll be doing this young-chef thing all day tomorrow and Sunday: a team of two makes two dishes from a Canadian-published cookbook (they made Pakistani spicy beef patties and Potatoes with Greens from Mangoes and Curry Leaves this afternoon) and their work gets tasted and awarded marks by a panel of three judges. The teams with the top marks get prizes, awarded on Sunday. It all takes place in front of an audience at the Home Stage in Hall A at the Ex grounds.

I was impressed with how well the two young guys, Michael and Luis, worked today, seemingly unfussed by the short time they had, and by our questions to them as they worked. If you get a chance, do go have a look this weekend. At each session there's a book given out to someone in the audience, and three audience members get to taste the chefs' food too. And also check out the beef cattle (dairy is later next week and weekend) in all their groomed sleekness, Charolais, Simmenthal, Shorthorns, several kinds of Hereford, Galloways, Angus, and more.

It's chilly to downright cold outside now. I ran this morning in a light rain, the leaves going sloosh sloosh underfoot, rather than scattering with a light crisp crackle as they were doing before the rain started. Colours popped in the dull overcast, rich and glowing, but still at this time of year I'd rather have warming golden sunshine, thank-you!

Silky the cat, to follow up on my last post, now has a shaved neck and foreleg on the left, and a neat row of seven stitches where her lumpy chin growth used to be. She's on a pain med that tranquilizes her slightly, so that so far she hasn't clawed out the stitches. I'm not big on spending lots of money or effort on pets' health. I mean, yes, feed them right, give them access to the outdoors, and let them stay healthy. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't plan to be back at the vet's anytime soon with Silky (except that she needs to go in to have the stitches out in ten days or so). The only excuse I have for even this vet intervention is that Silky is also a worker: she is a mouser and has been very effective. So I did feel that we owed her the vet visit and the subsequent surgery.

I saw a disturbing and important film this week, about Omar Khadr. If I had had any doubts before (I didn't), this film provided convincing evidence, as it showed a declassified video of his interrogation at Guantanamo by CSIS and another Canadian agent, that Harper's government (our government!) has behaved disgracefully, and that he is innocent in every possible way. I mean, yes, he was only fifteen, a child. But apart from that, he could NOT possibly have thrown the grenade that killed the US soldier (since he had bullet wounds in his chest and elsewhere and shrapnel all over and was flat on his chest when they found him. Even if he had done, it was not murder, since the soldier was not there as a medic but as a killing machine, part of an elite crew called Delta Force, that attacked the house Omar Khadr was in. It's so disgraceful that he's now been cornered into pleading guilty, just in order to get clear, at the cost of his name being permanently blackened and of many more years of jail.

In the film it's pathetic to see how pleased Khadr is on day one to have Canadians talking to him. Then as he realises they don't have his interests at heart, he breaks down and cries for his mother... He tells his questioners that they don't want to hear the truth from him, that they don't like the truth.

If the government can pick and choose which Canadians it provides protection to and which it leaves to hang out to dry, then next time it could be you or me, or anyone, who is left to rot in a jail or be tortured or vilified. The film is called You Don't Like the Truth and is by Cote and Henriquez, from Montreal.

Now it's later Friday evening. The new moon brings Diwali, the Festival of lights, the start of a new year in the Hindu calendar. All over south Asia and elsewhere, houses are swept clean, lamps are lit, prayers are said... a focussed effort to lift everyone to new heights of clarity and in-tuneness for the passage into the new year.

A long time ago, thirty-four years ago, at this time of year, my mother was lying in her bed in the Gatineau outside Ottawa dying of cancer. She was lucid, just tired, as the breast cancer sat in her lungs, encumbering them and making breathing an effort. She had the energy and curiosity to have visitors, to take pleasure in the fading autumn colours, in the cat and the dogs and horses that lived on her farm. It was such an intense time, that slow passage of the days as she faded into leaving. It was a privilege to be able to live through that with her.

And now every year at this time the slanting shadows and fading colours and chill winds and patchy rain showers, and the scent of wet leaves, all of these things remind me of that intensely lived time of her dying. And that's good. it keeps me grounded and appreciative.

We're all going to end there eventually, on a deathbed of some kind. So let's live fully in the meantime, and hope that we're lucky enough to have clear heads and loving company for our full span.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


A quick note, here on this third day of November, sunny and bright and cold! to say that I'll be talking and cooking in London Ontario this weekend. There's a writers' conference and a lot of events and workshops, all to benefit Wellspring, the remarkable and helpful cancer support organization. Here's the link to the website about all the events: . I hope that if you're in the area you can make it.

I'm feeling a little out of rhythm, for this morning I took Silky- a beautiful ten year old tabby we have as a housemate for the year while her family is in NYC -to the vet for a check-up. She has a longstanding large fleshy lump under her jaw, which doesn't seem to bother her at all. A friend was over for supper on Monday and was appalled that I hadn't had it checked. Well, I said, her family said it was just a fat deposit. "That's not good enough, it needs to be looked at!" was the reply.

And indeed she was right. The vet said it looks like cancer and in any case should come off. So Silky's there being anaesthetized and cut open right now. I hope she recovers, but I doubt she'll be feeling warm and fuzzy and forgiving of me anytime soon!

There was a thick white layer of frost on the grass this morning as I ran through campus, and a smell of cold in the air, that smell that blocks out all the delicate scents of autumn and tells us that we're headed for cold and snow soon. It's beautiful though, morning frost on the ground, with brighter green showing where it has melted, and under trees, where the air has been kept a little warmer (or is it just that the dew doesn't set there, so there's nothing to freeze white?).

I'm slowly getting prepared for my trip (I leave for Chiang Mai on Wednesday). I'm assembling my camera paraphernalia, such as it is, and also my travelling clothes, lightweight comfortable layers of easy-to-wash garments. I've ordered some US dollars, in perfect condition, for in Burma, where I'm hoping to spend three weeks, nothing less than perfect bills are accepted. It's not sensible, just paranoid and superstitious; not the people's doing, but the rule of the government-run central bank. And of course there are no ATM machines or credit card facilities, so if you don't have enough money, there's nothing to do but spend less or leave. It's a reminder of what travel used to be like, and the constraints can be fine, until they corner you, and then you remember what constraints people are living with every day in Burma and elsewhere, and you stop complaining and feeling sorry for yourself.

We don't even know what freedom feels like, we have so much of it. Only when we run into constraints can we take stock of how few of them there actually are for most of us.

The people who are out of work and pissed off in the US and voted against Obama, thinking that somehow the Republicans, the party of big money, will take better care of them. How crazy is that? Why would a person lower on the economic ladder think health care was a bad thing? I just don't get it.

And with that last snarky comment, this scrappy blogpost is done! I'll be more coherent next time, and will hopefully have good news about Silky, too.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


Irresistible to post this evening, Hallowe'en, with young people in the house, one as a "sensible bear", the rest as university students, in other words not disguised, and me in shiny red pants and tails, a ringmaster kind of outfit. But I am not in charge and that's restful. They're dealing with supper with a mix of pizza and other offerings...

I posted yesterday about my plan to head to Grey County last night for contra dancing.. and am so full of the fun quotient from the evening that I have to post again. First stop was in Markdale where I dropped in on my aunt and chopped vegetables- leeks, sweet potatoes, carrots - then cooked them with a lot of minced ginger in butter, added water and things like salt, soy sauce, a good vinegar, and presto chango there was a winter soup, enough to eat some, freeze some, give some away.

From there I went in the dark dark night (stars bright points in the blackness) to Glenelg Township Hall on Baptist Church Road, and the dancing began. There were fiddlers, one from Cape Breton and the rest from Scatter the Cats, a fab group with flute and fiddles and guitar and drum based in and around Owen Sound. We made lines and stars and do-si-dohed and alamained, and danced patterns that seemed elaborate as we were walked through them, and then became clear as we danced them and danced them. There were kids and grandmothers and lots of us in-between people of various ages... We finally rolled out into the cold night around 11:30, sweaty and exhilarated under those sparkling stars, with no other lights to be seen. What a privilege to be in real darkness.

I headed back to Toronto with some apples and butter tarts as back-up, but didn't need them, I was so buzzed from the dancing and the happiness that came with it. Keeping me company was a CD with Zakir Hussein and John McLaughlin and with flute by an Indian guy whose name I can't remember right now. It was hauntingly great, a live concert, and each time the CD started again I heard new mysteries and liveliness in the music, so I let it play over and over as I whizzed along.

Somewhere in there, between Shelburne and Orangeville, I saw a small flash of light on the road, and another gleam in the darkness, so I slowed. Good thing too, for it was a tall deer, with antlers and healthy unworried unhurried grace, standing in the middle of the road. The gleam was my headlights catching the light in his eyes, or the moisture, perhaps. Yikes! I don't think I imagined him, but now a day later... how can I be sure?

As I came over the last hills that overlook Toronto, the sky turned a weird War of the Worlds pinky-tangerine from the city lights' reflecting onto a layer of cloud. Coming into the city, as I drove eastward toward the downtown skyline, there, just above it, was an outsized orange-yellow half-moon, on her back because she is waning, a thrilling sight at 1.30 in the morning, entrancing and unreal.

Reality of a kind struck a little later as I hit Spadina. The sidewalks were packed, and the crowd strayed out into the streets, most in costume and partying, adult partyers in wings and headdresses and impossible shoes and face paints and, and. What a scene! Hallowe'en has become the North American version of Venice's Carnival, costume and disguise, role-plying and fantasy. Don't we all need that at times?

The kids have now come and gone (the best was a little girl as a unicorn, with wings), and we're eating the remains of the candy. We've been playing Scrabble and my kids beat me, again...

Happy Hallowe'en. And have a look at the moon. Next weekend is the new moon, with the excitement of Diwali, the festival of lights that marks the new year for so many.

Saturday, October 30, 2010


The big winds of autumn came blowing through this week, whisking leaves off branches... The weather people gave us warning about the winds, so the morning before they swept in, I went for my run with an extra awareness that the glowing colours in the trees, the aureole of light that seems to radiate from them, are temporary and that I should make my farewells. As the wind picked up there were swirls of colour against the sky, tumbles of lovely gold and fawn and pink and orange and a kind of raspberry red from some kind of bush... It was all dazzling, a kind of fireworks of autumn in full daylight.

But we have not been completely bared: The ivy that covers the coachhouse out back is very sheltered and its large leaves turn a gorgeous colour, graduating from green to pink and pinksh yellow in the subtlest way. The leaves shimmer in the breeze, undulating in little unsynchronized waves of colour. And that's the lovely uplifting backdrop to life these days, for the leafed wall fills the view out the back windows of the house.

But outside things aren't as warm as that glowing colour. I ran in a windbreaker and fingerless wool gloves this morning, and long pants, and that was perfect. I did a long loop then stopped in at Kensington Market to buy a pumpkin (the view of the young people in the house is that we have a social responsibility to have a pumpkin for Hallowe'en, hand out treats, and generally participate - and I can't disagree). For $5.99 I got a huge slightly eccentric and knobby one that i could hold in my arms, just. So I lumbered on home with it, pausing at a couple of places to rest my arms. Next step of course is carving... I like to make two or even three faces on a pumpkin, with different expressions, and it's best if different people do different faces, for fun.

At this time of year Oaxaca has the Dia de los Muertes and in Fance it's the Toussaint holiday, All Saints' on November 1 and All Souls on November 2. So it's a time for thinking about those who have left us, and to appreciate the days years, minutes, hours that we have to engage with life and with each other.

I had a small personal jolt of that kind of reminder to enjoy life. A fall, but a lot harder than the fall of a leaf! It was just yesterday, as I was whooshing on my bike down a lane through the university. I caught a front tire on the edge of the curb, and over I went, sideways. Yikes! that's what jeans are for, I discovered. The denim ripped at the knee, but not a lot, and all I have (I did an inventory in the bathtub) is a burned/scraped patch below my knee and some bulging bruises, goose eggs I would call them, on a forearm, the other leg, one thigh. That's real luck. I could have broken a wrist or who knows what?

Yes, yes, "Ride with more care!" I hear you saying. But part of me loves the exhilaration of rushing along and nipping in and out and pushing myself and the limits of what I can do. It's a real adrenalin high.

And soon I'll be putting the bike to bed in the basement, for I'm heading to Thailand, and Burma too i hope, before the middle of November. So not only am I saying farewell to the leaves and the brilliant glow of autumn, but also to friends and family, for awhile.

This moment before leaving, when the "to-do" list gets long, can sometimes be a little anxious, heart-squeezing. But this time I've realised that it's up to me what I worry about. So if there's something I'm anxious about, I am trying to make sure that either I do it, or else I let it go with a "so what?" or some other letting-go phrase. It's working pretty well so far, this technique!

One of the to-do's was to tidy up the website. I'm doing two culinary tours this coming winter, from January 23 to 29 and then from January 30 to February 4 2011. For more info, please have a look at the Chiang Mai page of the website. I used to dread engaging with the tech in technology, but now I find I'm enjoying it. I could never have dreamed ten years ago that I'd feel this way. Robyn Ekckhardt persuaded me to tweet, so I'm now doing that as well, (@naomiduguid). And that's why I was talking about Twitter and e-technology generally, as a kind of hamster wheel in my last post, or the one before...

But if you're reading this you are probably way ahead of me with all this technology, not appalled by it at all, and using your i-phone or Blackbeerry fluently. I caught myself thinking this morning, during my run, that I should perhaps break down, spend the money, and engage with the I-phone. I could text and send photos and feel light about it? Would I? What do you do?

Right now I'm about to head north to say farewell to people in Grey County. There's a contra dance this evening at the Glenelg Township Hall, a lovely stone building with thick walls and wide window embrasures. It's important at these events to wear layers, so I can peel down to a sleeveless T-shirt as the room gets hot with the dancing. And then I'll have a long drive back to the city in the dark -more whooshing along, but less exhilarating than on a bicycle - so that I can wake up here in the morning, look out, and be warmed again by the glowing colours of the ivy out back.

Hope your Hallowe'en is pleasurable and that November looks promising in every way.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


The moon is bright bright and full, making sharp shadows in the garden. And as often happens at full moon in October, it looks like this is the first night we'll have frost. So I was out there in those sharp shadows an hour ago, pulling up, with regret, the huge strong basil plants in the garden. I have two Med basils and two Thai basils. They've kept us aromatic and intensely flavoured all summer. If I don't pull them up, I thought this evening, they may freeze and then be wasted, blackened and gone. If I DO pull them up then they'll last a little in water in the house and I can use them mindfully and process the last leaves in olive oil for a pesto base that I'll store in a couple of glass jars.

This really feels like the end of the garden... even though there are a few last tomatoes clinging on, not getting any larger but slowly ever so slowly changing colour.

I've been thinking about change these days... well truth be told change is often on my mind, but in this case I mean social change and social and economic mobility, what it means and what's involved. I have been talking to everyone, perhaps tiresomely, about Doug Saunders' new book Arrival City. Here's the link to the site for the book. A friend who heard the author interviewed on the radio said, "Well it's a pretty easy theory to understand so I don't see any reason to read the book." But I found it riveting, details about what works and almost more importantly what doesn't work in some "arrival city" situations, are clearly explained. And the history of places where immigrants land, immigrants from the countryside, or from other countries, and how they help each other and navigate their way into better lives, over time, if given the chance, is fascinating, from Teheran and Istanbul to (failed) arrival cities in Paris and Germany, etc.

I have lent the book out, and it's probably in the library too by now, but it is really worth owning, so you can dip back into it at intervals.

Another recent book is Sheila Heti's "How Should A Person Be?" She has such a distinctive voice on the page, it's so artful while seeming effortless. I heard her read the prologue aloud at a book launch and it was fabulous read aloud. Maybe the best books are? Not sure, but it's a good test of writing, to hear whether it is happy and interesting being read aloud.

On another topic, the unexpected, I had a quick brush with "disaster" the other day. I was running in the sunshine last Saturday, the leaves bright and my spitrits too, doing a long loop to end up in Kensington Market. I saw some guys far ahead of me in the middle of the street working on the street, but didn't notice what was right in front of me as I stepped off the curb to run across a side street... It was a deep patch of fresh cement, and there I was one foot, the second foot in to the ankles and then out again onto "dry land". Yikes! The guys working said apologetically, "We watched you run toward us - sorry not to warn you!" I assured them I'd be fine. "No they said, Go right over there to the cement truck (huge and rumbling). "There's a water hose on the back. Get those guys to help you. And so with a lot of running water I cleaned off all the wet cement and then jogged on squelching a little!

If only all unexpected "bad surprises" could be resolved as easily! I ran on feeling lucky to be unscathed, and able to laugh, rather than wretched. Not sure why I'm telling this story except that as always when events take an odd turn, it was a reminder not to take any joyous moment for granted. And also I guess a reminder that change is one of the few constants in life. Thus if things are going well they can and will turn, and we need to accept that and be ready for it. SImilarly, and sometimes very hearteningly, if things are bad, depressing, rotten in some way, then they WILL change, evolve, get easier. Keeping a reasonable equilibrium in all this up and down and unexpectedness is one of the main challenges and, with luck, the main pleasures of life.

And to turn another topic corner, I find, now that I have been pushed to tweet and participate in that 140 character hamster wheel, that it is sometimes rewarding (when there's an interesting link posted) but more often it is just another place to check, another way of procrastinating.... If I have enough places to check (two email accounts plus Facebook plus Twitter) that means that by the time I have engaged with each of them it's time to recheck the first one again. Do you find yourself doing that? It becomes a reflex, like smoking another cigarette used to be.

Are we just destined to fritter away the privilege of free time and choice on often-meaningless repetitive behaviours? Or are these just highly evolved or hi-tech work-avoidance techniques?

The first check of email in the day, like the first cigarette, can be pleasurable and fruitful, but the subsequent ones?

Some days I avoid the computer altogether, or else I label the day or the morning a non-internet zone. It's amazing how much else I can get done, then. And it's a little scary to find how long it takes me to settle into more focussed thinking or writing or reading, like a kind of necessary withdrawal period.


With colder weather arriving, and so less outside time, the risk of getting even more squirrely and online-hooked is real. Books are one great antidote, for sure. And that's one reason to be grateful that publishers are still, despite the warnings about the end of publishing, printing books, acquiring new titles, enticing us into deeper longer thinking and reflecting.

Some things don't change much, and one of those is my simple roast chicken. I've written about it before: I wash and dry the bird, then prick a lemon and put it inside, then drizzle on olive oil and scatter on salt. It goes in breast down for the first while, then I turn it, all at 425 or 450. Around it are sliced potatoes roasting, and also drizzled with olive oil and salt.

And this same old- same old is always a pleasure, succulent and satisfying and full of flavour. Next day's broth is also a treat to look forward to. Usually this roast chicken and potatoes combo is my Thursday night meal, after a heavy day for Tashi and before a heavy Friday for Dom. The guys cook other days, but Thursday it's my turn, a nice anchor in the week. I've come to enjoy this sense of routine, despite my dislike of predictability. Is this old age? Or is it just a realisation that some habits and routines are so pleasing that altering them would be a foolish waste of effort?

Friday, October 15, 2010


How can it be Friday already? The Thanksgiving holiday last Monday put all my internal orientation out of wack - and friends have said the same thing. So suddenly we're butting up agains the end of another week and yikes!! the to-do list is still pretty full to overflowing.

But the holiday was truly wonderful, so no complaining allowed, I say to myslef. We had fabulously good weather, I got out for a long bike ride and explore in Scarborough, the leaves brilliant and the sky an intense blue, then Monday went into cooking mode. I made bread for the first time in two years, baking it off on Sunday, but Monday there was time to enrich some leftover dough with butter, flatten it, and press chopped pears with sugar on top for a Baker's Fruit Tart. The other end of dough earned its keep under sliced potatoes, slat, and minced shallots, as a version of pletzel. The small Berkshite pork roast melted its fat nicely to cook the roast potatoes to a kind of dreamy perfection... And most amazing of all, the pumpkin pie effort was a huge success.

I wanted to give proportions and method, while it's still in my head: Cut top and bottom ends off 2 or 3 small pie pumpkins, so they sit up, but are still fleshy at each end. Bake at 400 for about 90 minutes, or longer, on a baking sheet. Let cool, then scrape out seeds and set aside, and scrape out flesh. Mash flesh as wellas you can with a slotted spoon, and set aside.

(Wash seeds thoroughly, discarding all stringy bits and flesh, and finsih the job by putting them in a sieve and rinsing them off well, then bake on a sheet in that 400 oven until just touched with colour. These were the best pepitas I have ever had. They've been a great snack for passers-by all week.)

You will need a blender for the next step: Use the proportion of 2 cups pumpkin flesh to 1 cup 10% cream; 3/4 cup sugar (I used organic cane sugar that was light brown); 1/2 teaspoon salt or so; generous teaspoon cinnamon; 1/4 teaspoon cloves; scant teaspoon dried ginger; 1/3 nutmeg clove grated. Put them all in the blender and liquify. You may have to stop and stir a little in between, but eventually you will have a smooth thick liquid. Set aside in a bowl and repeat with another batch.

Whisk six eggs (three per each batch of 2 cups pumpkin) and stir into the mixture just before using. I then got a little anxious so I stirred in, this will maybe make you laugh, about 3 tablespoons pastry flour: why? I had an obscure idea about thickening it I guess. No harm done, as it turns out.

This will give enough to fill three pies, and maybe some small tartlets too. I made a double recipe of pate sucree (6 eggs, 1/2 pound butter; sugar, salt, and a blend of pastry flour and all-purpose), prebaked it for 10 minutes at 375degrees, pricked and also weighted down with dried limas on a sheet of foil. After it had cooled, I poured in pumpkin liquid leaving more than 1/4 inch clearance, and baked it at 350 until firm. For tart pans I used one small thick (Calphalon) baking sheet (11 by 15 inches or so) and one pie plate. I had some pumpkin liquid left over for steaming the next day, and a little bit of remnant pastry that became a small batch of sablees, dusted with sugar and cinnamon.

The rectangular tart and the pie were both spectacular, tasted of pumpkin, subtle and good, not just of the spices or other additives. I was delighted. I am ready to do it again, in fact. Maybe for Hallowe'en??

The leaves on the huge maple tree out back are a blend of red and green, lovely, and changing colour moment to moment it seems. We're racing toward winter as the sun heads south. And we're squirreling away food, at least I have been: I collected black walnuts, taking them from the squirrels, you might say, from under a tree on my daily run and from under another on my bike ride last Sunday. What to do with them? Any ideas? They stain hands of course, but what about an eating idea? or should I just crack them open and enjoy them one by one with friends?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


As I sit here typing, the sun is golden and getting low in the sky, it's nearly 6 pm, but the air is so balmy that I'm still in short-sleeved cotton. This Thanksgiving weekend is like a reminder of all the wonderful weather we've had since June, a truly memorable summer for gardeners in Toronto. North of here, in Grey County, there was more rain and many market gardeners had too much wet weather and problems with mould and blight etc. But here in the Toronto area and down into Niagara, it was hard to find any complainers!

I should revisit the subject of Nuit Blanche, that I wrote about in anticipation last week. But really, there's too much to say, and I am not a reviewer. I'll just mention a wonderful installation called "The Big O",by Zilvinas Kempinas, a 7 metre diameter circle of magnetic tape that floated and rippled continuously, sustained and animated by six fans, three on either side about 5 metres apart. The piece was aspirational, optimisitic, and memsmerising. I thought "sight unseen" by Lee Ranaldo and Leah Singer was memorable. And "Arrivals and Deparatures" by Michael Fernandes, a pair of large notice boards like those in European train stations, with horizontal lines closely spaced, on which all night people wrote, and erased and wrote more, in the form "I am arriving from...(Sault Ste MArie, or a place of depression, or Whitby...) and I am going to (hope, or Harbourfront, or Europe...)" was very effective and engaging; it perhaps sounds trite, but it worked...

And now here we are at Thanksgiving weekend, with the markets and farmers' markets jammed yesterday and today with optimistic shoppers, me among them. A bicycle is a great mode of transport, and imposes some good constraints. I do NOT have a large box or basket on mine, something I regret from time to time. But as I rearranged my load today, putting the pears and tomatoes and olive oil in my small day pack, and the lighter lumps like bread in an over-the-shoulder bag, I realised that I'm better off without a basket. If I had one I wouldn't be as restrained/constrained, and would shop even more optimistically and generously.

This impulse to buy because the vegetables are fresh and beautiful, and also just because there they are, is a fine one. But it leads me to a kind of hoarding mentality, "I'd better get a lot of X, just to be sure I have enough"; or, another version, "Maybe I'll take these dandelion greens too, because maybe the beets and the purple cabbage and the leaf lettuce and the celery root that I have already bought for this weekend won't be enough". It's crazy thinking. And it's predictable, especially at a farmers' market before a holiday.

Somewhere there lurks in me, and perhaps in many of us (I do like to think that I have company in my weaknesses!), some kind of atavistic fear of being caught short, not because of real threats of food scarcity such as invading armies or plague, but just because the stores are going to be closed for a day or two... (It's a little pathetic, phrased that way, isn't it?) So I stocked up on extra butter and eggs, in case i want to make a cake as well as a pie as well as, oh, perhaps a different pie...

It's lovely, picturing all these possibilities, but it also shows that I don't really want to pin myself down or have a plan. I want to play the whole weekend or holiday by ear, and have the freedom to decide at the last minute what I am going to cook and how I am going to cook it.

If I think of earlier times, when the challenge in the home kitchen was to work with a narrow range of foodstuffs and still make meals interesting or festive, then this wonderfully rich choice at Thanksgiving weekend is even more astonishing. No wonder my eyes are bigger than my planning!!!

Which leads me to, yes, the plan. What is it? Well in the last few days a kind of shape has emerged: I'm expecting a loose collection of various people over for an early supper on Monday. I have some Berkshire pork (a small roast from Sanagan's), and some merguez, and a little beef too, to grill, and there are potatoes and a rich assortment of vegetables that will get used and eaten, but I don't know exactly in what way. A friend called today to ask us over for a Thanksgiving meal, and I suggested that since there were already people coming here, she and her family join us. It sounded like a good plan to her, which is great. And so now after all there will also be turkey (not my favorite, but loved by many): She is bringing over a small turkey that she'll have roasted ahead.

I have a load of pears, a mix of Bosc and Bartletts, maybe for a cake? or a custard tart? And I have some small pie pumpkins that I'm baking right now, so I can use the flesh, appropriately mashed and processed and smoothed with coconut milk and spices and an egg or three, as filling for several tarts/pies, on Monday. So that should feel generous and festive, don't you think?

Saturday, October 2, 2010


It's quiet in the city at 5 am, even here by the university and the downtown. But tonight it won't be. From seven this evening until seven tomorrow morning it's Nuit Blanche in Toronto. That means the downtown and uptown streets will be thronged with people looking at, and looking for, art events, performances, happenings.

There's a Nuit Blanche guide online, with maps and explanations, numbered dots for each piece or performance or art event. But there are always a lot of unofficial happenings that "erupt" too; finding them is a matter of luck. In the last few days all around the city I imagine there have been conversations like the ones I've had with friends: what are you aiming to get to at Nuit Blanche? or "what have you heard is a must-see?" or "I'm going to ask my artist friend w hat she's heard about".

The buzz is fun, and I've found in the past that there are treasures of various kinds of insight, and just wondrous sights, to be discovered and experienced. But best of all I think is the energy, the feeling that this is one giant performance, that we are all, the more-than-a-million people who come out for it, performers in a giant happening. I love looking at people's faces as they come on say a wonderful video installation or an amazing street performance or as they wander, a little dazed, at two in the morning. The streetcars (trams is the word outsiders might use) run all night on the main east-west streets, connecting some outlying pockets of intense Nuit Blanche activity to the downtown. And those streetcars will be crowded and full of conversations, rather like those at the film festival: "did you see the one where...?"

Like many ambitious multi-strand human efforts, it all becomes a metaphor for life and living. There are the serendipitously discovered wonders that thrill; the pieces on the event map that I head to purposely and that are either as great as I hoped or a disappointment; there are the chance encounters with friends and with strangers in the crowd; I overhear snatches of conversation but catch only the middle of the story, not the end or the beginning; and I am propelled by a need to keep moving, to try to take it all in, to not miss a thing, even though I know there's a lot I will not see, for it's impossible to encompass it all.

By moving around effortfully and ambitiously, I will feel I've given it my best, but another form of participation would be to just hang out in one place where several things are going on/being performed, and watch people's reactions, watch my own changing understanding of the crowd, the performances, the event. It's a good idea, but I just can't do it. I am driven, as I am in life, with the urge to connect to, have a glimpse of, try to understand, as much of what is going on as possible...

And afterward, tomorrow as I'm making ChocoSol chocolate chocolate-filled flatbreads for the Slow Foods picnic, and through the coming weeks, I expect that images and sensations from this Nuit Blanche will be replaying in my mind's eye, reverberating, growing and changing.

Nuit Blanche goes on after dawn arrives. The images projected on buildings get shut off, the performance artists wend wearily home, but the energy and the ideas embodied in the strong pieces go on resonating in our imaginations, warming us and stretching us.

And for food? A solid early supper, probably Thai grilled beef salad, for the friends that will be dropping by, and sticky rice, and I don't know what else. Then plenty of bread and cheese and cake to snack on when i and they drop back in occasionally through the night. The other part of the instructions is of course to wear comfortable shoes, I wear my running shoes, and layered clothing, for inside places can be hot but outside there are light showers and cool temps.

here we go!!!

Saturday, September 25, 2010


The big fat harvest moon this week was like a benign visitor reminding us of the passage of time, the autumn gathering-in. But the weather gave a contrary message, with warm summery winds and just the odd sprinkle of rain.

It was so enticing out last night that around 9.30 I felt I just had to get out into the night air and moonlight. It was hot and humid. In just a tank top and light pants I was comfortable and exhilatatedly happy on my bicycle whizzing along dark streets in the soft night air, bathed in that air, blessed-feeling. The moon-shadows were sharp against the pale glow of moonlight. I stopped in at Black Hoof for a treat - this time a drink they call Figgy Caipirinha, a spectacular combo made of Cacchaca muddled with a little fig and lots of lime - had pleasant chats with people at the bar, and savoured the drink, then came out an hour later to find the moon mostly hidden behind wildly moving stripes of cloud, a sharp wind, aggressive and chilly, and all balminess vanished. Brrr!! I wound a long cotton scarf round and round my neck, slid on a cardigan, and then pedalled home lickety-split. Autumn has arrived!

Speaking of the passage of time: Earlier in the week I had an evening with three women whom I have seen occasionally one on one in the last fifteen years, but never all of us together at the same time (we now don't all live in the same city). Before, long ago when I was practising law, we used to meet very couple of weeks to talk frankly and as honestly as we could about our lives and concerns. You could call it group therapy, but really it was a form of clear-eyed support. We had not started as bosom buddies; it was a more formal almost contractual arrangement, this meeting. I came to treasure it in many way. It was so valuable for me, and I am sure for each of us. It gave me a chance I think to acknowledge events of the past and integrate them with confidence into what I was doing and feeling.

The kind of intimacy that we developed, the trust we had so that we could admit painful doubts and get advice about difficulties we were having or anticipated having, is a rare thing. We are mostly fairly alone with some of our doubts and fears. We may have a spouse/partner to whom we can talk about our deepest concerns, but often we hesitate to air them with the person we are seeing every day. Somehow talking about them in a separate place means we aren't crowded by them, and we don't have to fear the other person raising them or reminding us of our weaknesses when we don't want to be reminded!!

I guess some people get advice and some version of counselling from their priest or imam or rabbi or... And many people see a therapist regularly, which can be such a valuable interaction.

But the specialness of building relationship with non-professionals, I guess you could say of a DIY approach to the problems of life and living, is a wonderful thing. I feel lucky to have been included in this process long ago. And I hope others are finding friends that they can trust and lean on when things get tough or scary or puzzling.

It seems to me that aloneness, feeling that you are alone with your worries, is a tiring and scary thing. But finding friends who are straight-shooters, honest and generous, is a matter of luck as well as of work and time. Intimacy and trust need to be built brick by brick, so not only do you need to find the right person or people, but then you have to put in the time.

As life gets fragmented into email messages and texting and cel phone accessibilty, maybe that kind of sustained commitment becomes more difficult? I don't know.

And on matters food: Dawn made a huge batch of damson jam this week and had some for sale at the Brickworks market today. Yum, my favorite (well, tied with tart Seville orange marmalade); that's why there's a recipe for both in HomeBaking. How can there be bread recipes without the instructions for the jams of my childhood? I found beautiful potatoes at the market, apples, pears, the end of the tomatoes... and the cold wind came howling through the crowds of shoppers, but warmed by hot chocolate and other treats, no-one seemed in the least fussed.

I got hit by the wind riding back, too. It caught the pack on my back and made me fight my way along in several gusty exposed stretches. Home is such an oasis after a buffeted struggling time out on a bicycle. I am so grateful to have a door to walk through and a space to live and cook in peacefully.

Next up on the food front are some Burmese pork dishes, and several soups from Burma. They're all good warming choices as the weather gets colder...

Friday, September 17, 2010


The green green Ontario countryside is unrolling outside the window as this train I'm on speeds toward Toronto in the golden late-afternoon light. The half-full moon is up and there are wispy trails of cloud gauzily draped across the blue sky, catching the late light.

I've been on the island of Grand Manan this week, a completely transporting trip to another world, it felt like. The drive across small roads in Quebec's Eastern Townships, huge swoops of hills, was great, and a reliving of drives I took as a kid with my parents, though now those roads are paved, not dirt. Northern Maine is as pine tree-lined and dark as ever, with beautiful salt-box houses and outbuildings, sparely elegant. But it was Grand Manan, with its steep sandstone cliffs on the west coast, and curving small harbours on the other side that was the new pleasure.

My friend Lianne and her husband have a small house just near Castalia Marsh, on the north end of the island, with a view due east across the water, Nova Scotia out of sight across the blue of the Bay of Fundy. The tides weren't as huge as usual this week, because the moon is not full, though they were still remarkable compared to the tides in most places. The weather was changeable, so skies were dramatic.

On the food front, we went each day to the terrifically good (we have nothing near this quality in Toronto) artisanal bakery, North Head Bakery, not far from Lianne's house. The St John's River breads, multigrain, au levain, with a wonderful crust, were stunning, and so was the Old French Raisin bread (even though I don't usually love raisins in bread). The bakery alone is worth the trek to Grand Manan, seriously. (It's open from May until Canadian Thanksgiving, in October, five days a week.)

We had other luck too: there were fresh scallops at the Kwik-Way one evening, so we bought a pound of them and cooked them lightly and quickly in a little oil with some fresh local garlic. We ate them over fresh rice, with tender salad greens and yellow cherry tomatoes from a wonderful local garden in Whale's Cove. Instead of salt, I sprinkled my rice and tomatoes with dulse flakes - a great condiment from Grand Manan. Lianne and I are hoping to do a three day immersethrough session at this time next year on Grand Manan, probably the week after Labour Day. Now I've seen for myself how much food and culture there will be to explore with people. ANd then there's the whale-watching too....

We stopped in at a dulse-selling place and learned a little about how dulsing works, and about the other seaweeds/algaes that are gathered in Grand Manan. Talk turned to the perils of fishing: a few days ago a scallop boat with four aboard went down in the Bay of Fundy. There's no explanation for it, but the boat has gone. The men at the dulse shop talked about another boat that went down suddenly recently: something important (I don't remember what, the rudder? or?) broke or popped, making a large hole, but in that case the men were luckier, there was a lifeboat and they realised in time to get it launched and save themselves. I had thought that weather was the big risk, but really, it was a reminder that nothing can be taken for granted when you depend on the sea.

My small bag of clothes from the trip is impregnated with sea-aroma, the taste of the wild deeps, for I've brought bags of dulse back with me to Toronto. That haunting iodine-iron-salt-and more scent brings with it the reminder of our fragility in the face of mother nature's power. And it also reminds me of our ongoing debt to those who fish and grow and gather food for us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010


What a packed week! All over the city the children have made it to school and now this coming week the young adults start back to university, with hopes and fears and edginess and optimisim.

And to keep them company in all those contradictory feelings, the weather has alternated between chilly and damp, and sunny and intensely warm. So we dress in layers and adapt minute to minute, (a good description of what life demands generally, don't you think? ). This is the season when some are still wearing flip-flops and others are already in tall leather boots. The cityscape is a treat these days, is I guess what I am saying.

This weekend I went up to Grey County to stay with friends. The smell in the air when I arrived was pure autumn, that sweet smell of drying starting-to-decay leaves. It seemed strange, since the trees are still green green. But the chickadees are already fully into their winter chickadee-dee-dee song, and in some places a few leaves are starting to turn colours, so it's time to admit that this wonderful summer is really and truly winding down. We had a sauna, in the evening after supper, as the rain dripped down in cold drops. It was especially wonderful to get heated through, snug in the scent of hot cedar, and then sit outside in the chill and damp, billowing steam, impervious to the cold, sauna-invincible for the moment!

I'm off to Ottawa on the train, rushing through the countryside under a huge cloudscape of a sky, white billows riding in the blue in all directions. Tomorrow I'll make the long drive to Grand Manan with my friend Lianne, who has a house there. I've never been to this storied island in the Bay of Fundy, a ninelty minute ride from southern New Brunswick. It'll be a bit of a marathon, but fun too, to cut through Quebec and across northern Maine, all in one day. I haven't travelled that route since driving to Maine with the kids in a little Honda Civic seventeen or eighteen years ago. I'm due back late Friday (it really is a quick trip!).

Right now the passengers in this train car with me are mostly sleeping, deep breathing on all sides, secure. I was talking the other day with Lillian about my grandparents, who ranched in northern British Columbia and didn't have a car until 1959 or 1960. They travelled everywhere in a cart or a buggy or sleigh, or else on horseback. By choice, they had no phone. So distances were entirely different from how they seem to us these days. The train then represented travel to them, the way they could get from where they were to Vancouver or to Eastern Canada, a rare treat. I find myself trying to imagine the state of mind that that situation produced in them. Perhaps, in the same way that radio is more exciting than television, because we visualise situations rather than passively receiving them on the screen, living in relative isolation meant that books and visitors became more vivid, more precious, richer in many ways. What do you think?

I know that when I am rushing (actually, or in my head in anticipation) from the email world to the telephone to chatting with a friend who has dropped by to writing a blogpos, something is lost, a deliberateness perhaps, and a rounding out of my thinking. And when I listen to the radio in the morning, which I enjoy, it does indeed scramble me a bit, sending me off on thoughts of this and that, so that I need my run to get me back into thinking in an extended way about a piece of writing or another creative idea.

Has this blogpost gone from the idea of the start of the school year to musings on relative technologies and how they affect our state of mind? It seems so. I'm not writing as a Luddite here: I would not want to live as my grandparents chose to. I love the comings and goings with friends on the internet and the phone and in real life. I thrive in the social vibrancy of the city. But I do wonder at the difference s between my rippled mind and the calmer stiller pool that the mind of a contemplative or a person living less socially must be.

In the course of last week, because it was chilly and there was a Rosh Hashonah meal out and another celebration, this one a birthday supper, I ended up making five skillet cakes in the space of seven days. Hilarious when I look back on it. And they each vanished, down various happy gullets. One had a thick coating of wild blueberries on it, others had cooked chopped purple plums, one had the end of the peaches... and all of them were tender because they were made with mostly pastry/cake flour, usually whole wheat, and only a little all-purpose.

Another cooking note: I cut some corn kernals off the cob the other day to add to a simmered combination of chopped end-of- season vegetables, all local, including okra and dandelion greens, a little tomato, tomatillos, zucchini, patty-pan squash, and garlic. The combo, slow simmered in olive oil (the non-local ingredient I love) was just delicious, the sweet of the corn balancing out the bitter of the dandelion, etc.

That led me a couple of days later to cut kernals off and add them to a hot wok as part of a quick little vegetable stir-fry. What a mistake! I mean, the result was delicious, but I have to warn you NOT to stir-fry corn kernals at high heat, at least not tender moist ones. They exploded with a lethal pop and spatter in the hot oil, one by one by one, like little grenades. I moved the corn up the sides of the wok so I could fry my morning egg in the centre, as and I broke the egg into the pan, ZAP!! a double hit of exploding corn kernal sent hot oil spitting up onto my wrist. I am fine, not noticeably burned. But it felt very violent! So my final word on this is, please be cautious with corn kernals and hot oil!

Monday, September 6, 2010


It happened overnight, the end of summer. Suddenly we were being blown and chilled tempestuously, by winds that gusted and shifted, sending clouds racing and people hurryng to find their wool sweaters and their windbreakers. That was last Friday night, after a week of hot heavy days. I had a restless sleep, and so did many others, I gather. I've been leaving my door open all summer, the door from my top-floor bedroom out onto a small balcony. It's given me a sleeping-outside feeling, free and airy, on the hot nights we've had since June. But sometime in the middle of the night what felt like howling gales through the door drove me up out of my bed to close it, with a sigh of regret and relief, both: regret of course at the end of the soft warmth of summer, and relief once the chilly winds were shut out by the firmly closed door.

Saturday morning's early bicycle ride to the Brickworks Market was windy and blowy, and at the market people who had looked out and seen sun, but not read the paper or looked at the weather forecast online, were shivering in T-shirts - brrrr! - as they bought their bread and meat and end-of-summer tomatoes and plums, and tried to warm themselves with hot coffee. I was in three layers topped by a scarf wrapped round and round my neck, and still I was barely warm enough. But the balancing pleasure to all that cold was realising that it was time to start baking, so in went a skillet cake, this one topped with chopped peaches, chopped but not peeled. (That cake has already vanished, and a second, made last night, is well on its way too.)

Saturday evening after supper and cake with mint tea, with the winds calmed back down, I went for a walk with friends through the University of Toronto campus. It was beautiful, but empty of people, a stage-set just before the curtain rises.

And sure enough, on Sunday morning before eight, as I ran through campus, there were the first signs of renewed life. A woman walking toward me near one of the residences carrying an armload of clothing smiled at me in the sunshine as she said, with delight, "What a beautiful first day at university! She's so lucky!" She told me they'd driven in early from the Niagara peninsula to move her daughter into residence, then she carried on down the path, followed by her daughter and others, each of them loaded with "stuff". As I ran on under the intensely blue clear sky I could hear the leaves rustling, that sound that starts in early autumn as the leaves dry out in the cold. How does it happen overnight? I thought, that suddenly the leaves are getting ready to fall rather than working on photosynthesis and making life?

Once more the reminders pour in, that change is a constant, with the scales weighted on both sides, life and death, endings and beginnings of all kinds. At this time of year, as summer warmth and life is dying, a different kind of life is starting afresh for so many...

it is the start of a new year this week, not just Rosh Hoshana in the Jewish calendar, but the new year for all of us who live with or near schools or universities or live with people who are engaged with education. There's that feeling of hope and sense of optimism and promise in the air, in the voices of the students, on the faces of parents and teachers and students alike. Our four-year-old friend E is headed into junior kindergarten, wriggling with anticipation. Our friend N is starting her first year at university, delighted to be done with high school. And so it goes, in thousands of households.

For me it's a thrill every year, it's each time a fresh pleasure, to watch the new year begin.

Meanwhile in the garden my tomato plants are yielding less and less (some of them because of blight as well as shorter chillier days), though the mint and basil is still vigorous, and I tell myself each day that I must plant some salad greens (should have done it several weeks ago in fact). I found the seed packages today, mixed salad greens and leaf lettuce, and they'll go in tomorrow. With any luck there will be time before the snow falls in any serious way to pick some tender lettuce. I hope so!