Sunday, 7 June 2015

Bucolic Bavaria: Not Exactly a Travelogue

The flurry of news coming from Schloss Elmau, where the G7 Summit is being held today and tomorrow, reminded me that I had not yet posted anything about my trip to Germany with my son last month.While we went to Germany to attend a wedding, we were very close to where the Summit action/inaction is happening. The hordes of government officials, journalists and protesters that accompany modern summitry are no doubt trampling the bucolic landscape as I type. For that reason alone, I'm grateful that our trip didn't coincide with the Summit. I'm sure it would have been more difficult to get around. 

Still, it would have been interesting to be there at the same time as the Summit. I'm curious about what the leaders of the world's biggest economies might accomplish, or not, at their latest gathering in Bavaria. And what the thousands demonstrating in the streets of nearby Garmisch-Partenkirchen might draw attention to, as well. Canadian readers may wish to note that the Germans weren't building any godawful gazebos in the Summit run-up period, as was done in Muskoka; apparently wasteful schlock is not a requirement of the host country.

Regardless of timing, my teenaged son got a political booster shot on his first trip to Europe. With our German friends we discussed the state of surveillance and the surveillance state; the Greek-EU financial crisis (an argument ensued--and for politicos, an argument is a welcome event, as happy as a wedding); Canada's genocidal treatment of First Nations people (also much in the news this week); and more. On our own, we visited historic sights in Munich, Nuremberg, and Dachau and considered them through the prism of current events. We even had a chance encounter in a cafe, where a stranger seated near us, an older man, opined at length, unprompted, about American foreign policy. He said that Germans are truly shocked by US actions (Iraq, the spying episodes, drones) and concerned about rising fascism. I was polite but noncommittal, which I thought best as a visiting foreigner, not knowing anything about this guy. His demeanor remained solemn and measured throughout. But after a bit, he backpedaled. One should be careful, he said, when speaking of such things. Too late, I wanted to say. A strange politically-charged moment.
So besides the many churches we entered--and my kid reached his saturation point on gilded rococo cathedrals early on--politics emerged as our traveling theme. In case you're feeling sorry for him just about now, know that we also viewed beautiful art and very cool technology exhibitions, took the high-speed train, drove on the Autobahn at 220 km/hour (or rather, were driven; I certainly couldn't drive that fast), ate rich food and even hiked in the Alps one afternoon, but I'm afraid the chatter among our multinational group of hikers was mostly know.

I guess we'll see what happens at Schloss Elmau, but the Reuters photo of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel embracing as they begin bilateral talks in advance of the Summit could not be more entertaining, given two countries very much at odds at the moment. I can't help imagining Merkel whispering in his ear, "Tell me you've destroyed my mobile phone records, Barack" or sweetly challenging him to find the edible nano-recording device hidden in the lunch they will soon have. At the press conference he makes a lederhosen joke (check out the video link (scroll down)--the lederhosen-clad fellow standing behind him is not amused). At some point they repair to a welcome-to-Germany luncheon, which the BBC faithfully reports on, even using the subheading "Sausages", for Ludwig's sake. Breaking: the Chancellor and POTUS enjoyed sausages and beer in the Bavarian sunshine.

What a coincidence. We, too, enjoyed sausages and beer in the Bavarian sunshine. In addition to the weisswurst and rostbratwurst typical of the region, we were served a local dish called sausage salad, which I had never had before. It consisted of shredded sausage, a mayonnaise-based dressing and, I was told but could not discern in the mix, cucumbers. Nano-particle vegetables stealthily dropped into the salad.

Following are a few more highlights.

Transit: the S-bahn suburban transit system connecting Munich to outlying villages is genius. Cheap, easy, and reliable, with seamless connections to the city subway. The honor system prevails--no one checks tickets, although there were warning signs about fines for those caught without one. And, of course, every station has parking for hundreds of bikes. The bike lots are full.

Nuremberg subway station entrance--go into the tower

On the train to Munich

We stayed in a village called Wolfratshausen, which is 1000 years old. Munich, in contrast, is *only* 800 years old.

The whole trip I had been waiting to see this image--on a t-shirt, was what I expected--and here it was stuck to the back of a traffic sign in Wolfratshausen. Perhaps our cafe friend was responsible for this bit of political speech calling for "Asyl" for Snowden.

"Arbeit mach frei" (work makes you free)--on the entrance gate to Dachau and other concentration camps.There must be millions of variations on this picture floating around the world--I had to wait as people lined up for this shot the day we were there. It's a horrific and chilling place, but also a place of learning and remembrance.

International memorial at Dachau

In Nuremberg, we happened upon this  monument, which is the Way of Human Rights. Inscribed on each pillar is an article of the UN Human Rights Declaration, in German and another language. The effect is quite moving, given Nuremberg's history as the site of the biggest Nazi rallies, and then mostly destroyed by bombing during World War II.  

A key to the languages used for each article of the Human Rights Declaration.

Our friend took us to this chapel, which overlooks lush rolling hills and in the distance, the Alps. It also has a war story, which has to do with downed British bomber pilots who were given proper burials contrary to Nazi orders, and the village was subsequently spared from devastation by Allied troops.

The site at Lake Starnberg where King Ludwig II, having been declared insane, deposed and imprisoned, either committed suicide by drowning or was murdered in 1886

Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Ghost Church) in Munich.I don't know the details about this cloud of paper doves hanging from the ceiling, but it's probably at least partly about peace, no?

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Beet Chips: Don't Do It

Have you ever reached for a bag of those multi-hued veggie chips and consumed the contents guilt-free--possibly even with a dash of self-righteousness--simply because they are not greasy potato chips? I have.

Porter Airlines hands out single-serving bags of Terra Exotic Vegetable Chips on their flights. Exotic as in taro and yuca, along with the more humdrum beet, parsnip and sweet potato. According to the website, they are 100% natural and each ounce contains a full serving of vegetables. Vegetables way more appealing than their traditional dinner guises. They're not only exotic but beautiful--red, orange and yellow crispy disks, and just like regular potato chips, basically a vehicle to get fat and salt into your mouth.

So why not try making them at home, I say? Said. And regretted.

Don't do it. Forget culinary DIY unprocessed maker hooptedoodle. Some things are better purchased. That's what I learned when I tried to make beet chips tonight based (okay, loosely based) on a googled recipe. Here's why you shouldn't. 

1. It's a mess. Anyone know an easier way of doing this?

2. A bloody disaster. The recipe called for cutting the beets into 1/16th inch slices with a mandoline, which I don't have, and guess what? That thing that kind of looks like a mandoline on a cheese grater won't do the job. The processer sliced, but only made small pieces.
3. False promises: reminiscent of the paper-thin shavings of ginger that come with sushi, only tasteless.

4. They looked okay at this point, although the people who loathe beets (everyone but me) weren't happy about the smell.

5. VoilĂ ! Unevenly cooked beet chips--some wet and repulsive, a very few perfectly done, some burned. And I don't have time to stand there plucking each cherished crisp from the oven as it reaches peak done-ness. As the recipe-writer does, apparently.
 I say buy them.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

A Poet's Park

On Saturday I went with a friend to Inspire!, Toronto's new book fair, which was a multi-stage riot of booksellers, publishers, readings, panel discussions, and children's activities. I've been forced to attend many a trade show on behalf of various former employers and always viewed them as dreadful ordeals: tiring and airless and schmoozy. Slogs to be endured. Now I know why those were so horrible (especially that godawful one in Las Vegas long ago): no books. In contrast, at the fun and inspirational BOOK fair I was energized by many hours of wandering past displays, chatting, meeting people, listening to writers, and oh right, buying books. I overspent wildly.

And a nice re-discovery, on my way from the Convention Centre to the car: a tiny Toronto park dedicated to 19th century poet Isabella Valancy Crawford, an Irish immigrant to Canada who lived for a time in Lakefield. I haven't read much of her poetry, and what I have read isn't, I confess, my thing. But it's impressive that the city formally recognized an impoverished young poet of the past. I'd like to know more about how the park came to be.

Once, years ago, my family was sitting on the little strip of grass in the shadow of the CN Tower. We were eating a cheap lunch bought from a hotdog truck when I noticed the plaques. It seemed a strange coincidence that of all the places we could land in the Big Smoke, we had happened upon a space commemorating one of the literary icons of our village.

So this time, even though it was dark and my camera is basic, I took photos. Another kind of inspiration.


Thursday, 13 November 2014


I'm going to try to write this post in the ten minutes available to me. That's the way blogging is supposed to happen, and I almost never manage it. So here goes, timer on. A few notes on our renovation in progress:

--Two guys just shuffled past me carrying part of a tub unit being installed today. Apparently it is heavy. There were stairs and corners to negotiate. I had to leave the computer, remove the desk chair, and hold the barking dog to help them do their job.

--First thing this morning (7:30, people, and I got the message about the early start around midnight last night!), one of the same guys showed up with a plumber and helper. Nice fellows. The plumber remembers us and our wonky pipes. We probably funded his boat or something. I'm hoping this visit is his last; he has replaced pretty much everything over the years.

--Plumbing trumps all--and just as we expected, it's led to mission creep. Demolition creep, involvement of another room. A wall in our tiny office (really a glorified walkway/storage dump) has to go in order to access pipes. The same wall we opened up last time, five years ago, and the time before that, twelve years ago. You'd think I might have been prepared, cleaned out the space before today. But this morning it suddenly HAD TO BE DONE. In record time I removed books and files and years of paper piles waiting for the shredder. Removed to where, you might ask? Exactly. Whole other rooms are now involved. And since we're cutting into walls, they are getting a fresh coat of paint, something vivid and warm. Options so far are cranberry cocktail, radicchio, raisin tarte, and aubergine. Tasty colours all.

Please vote.
--Time's up, no more writing. Despite all the chaos, things are very calm. The title of this post should be revised. It's not reno-mania around here, not a bit.

Have your kids go into plumbing for a secure future.
Why do I love this picture? It makes me wish I had a better camera than the one on  my phone. The contractor just walked by and said, "You won't see plaster done like this anymore." I was focusing on the sculptural, vaguely humanoid, composition formed by the electrical box and dust mask, but sure: plaster. Anyone can appreciate that. I am appreciating the hell out of it right now, as it's being covered.

Certain family members are tired of talking tile...

Freecycling makes the world go round. These disappeared within the hour.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Demolition Begins

Can it be that more than a year has passed since I mentioned we were renovating a bathroom--that, in fact, a renovation was imminent? Of course. That's how we roll around here. Everything happens months and years after we say it will.

But now it really is beginning--total gut, back to the studs, with all the possibilities and pitfall$ an old house presents. This has been a big week. Add in Halloween and marks due and relatives coming to visit...yeah, that's all happening, somehow.

Day Zero, Tuesday: dumpster delivered. An item necessary to collect construction waste, of course, but reno veterans know that the hulking bin is an invitation to purge beyond the room in question. We are serial renovators.

Day One, Wednesday: Tim climbed the roof, strung tarps, punched exploratory holes (yes, there really is no insulation in the outer walls), and began hammering. As in past projects, we're doing as much of the demolition as possible before the contractor steps in next week, and Tim will also be rewiring the room. In fact, he's put in 98% of the sweat equity so far, but this weekend we plan to give the kids dust masks and safety glasses and let them do their worst with sledgehammers (maybe only one at a time, given small rooms and siblings). Meanwhile, our child chain gang will be kept busy hauling buckets of plaster and lathe to the dumpster.

Ripping out walls is therapeutic, especially if previous generations of homeowners opted for wonky corners and odd cuts of trim to accommodate the addition of mechanical systems. The house was built around 1902. Pretty sure indoor plumbing came later. 

Notice the original (?) wallpaper beneath layers of tile, adhesive and cement board. Notice the tile that I've hated for the fourteen years we've lived in this house.

Day Two, Thursday:  Major demo, major dust. The contractor came over for a pleasant chat first thing this morning, and this happened afterward.

Exciting, right? The possibilities are endless. I discovered the design website Houzz today, so that's a win for consumer excess. Since there are 468,000 photos of just bathrooms, I surmise that I'm the last person in North America to discover Houzz.

And then some cleanup happened.

Joe worked steadily for about an hour, making solid progress, but guess where I found him later?

I talked him down. Very calm, I was.

Here's the thing: we probably should have planned more before launching the destructo phase. It would be nice to share design ideas at this point, maybe post some paint swatches and tile samples, but I've got nothing. Complacent? Crazy? Surprisingly unstressed about it all. Next week will bring a different story. Stay tuned for the hurryup catchup decision-making phase.

And send advice, will you?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Everybody Knows: Inequality

Today I'm participating in Blog Action Day 2014 along with 1500 others writing from more than 100 countries about the topic of inequality.

Inequality is depressing and divisive, 100% bad news. Who wants to read bad news? Why should we? First, to raise awareness about the state of our world and our own communities, which are both damaged when inequality rises. Also, if you need further incentive to read to the end, there's a musical surprise related to today's theme. Stay with me?

Today is also World Food Day, when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) releases its annual report on what people eat and how it gets produced. Another urgent topic is the Ebola outbreak, which the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a "Public Health Emergency of International Concern" back in August, but governments only began throwing money at in recent weeks, as it became clear that global really means global.

So, food and health care, both necessary to sustain life. What do they have to do with inequality?


Enough food is produced annually to feed everyone on the planet, yet an estimated 805 million are chronically undernourished, according to the FAO's publication The State of Food Insecurity 2014. This is actually an improvement over previous years, but consider: 805 million. That's the equivalent of 2.5 USAs. It's the same as 24 Canadas. Nearly 1 in 7 human beings worldwide. All those people, hungry, with the accompanying misery, anxiety and lost potential. People no different than my children or yours.

Where are those hungry? No surprise, massive inequality mars this map of the world.

Have a look at another interactive map from the FAO. It's a wonderful tool to see how hunger has changed in severity and location over time.

Food insecurity for some households--that is, unequal access to food--is not just a problem in the global south. The rich nations of the world are also food insecure, in some places and for some populations. People continue to rely on food banks, particularly in hard economic times. In my community, a new report called Vital Signs indicates that in 2011-2012, the rate of food-insecure households (definition: those experiencing a shortage of good quality food, or at a risk of a shortage, because of a lack of income) in the greater Peterborough area reached 11.9%, compared with the Ontario average of 7.7%. Peterborough's rate has increased 4.1% since 2007. These are troubling figures.

Fortunately, local groups are taking action--trying to shape food policy and ensure that people have access to nutritious food. Vital Signs notes that 81,650 lbs of produce was harvested from 30 Peterborough community gardens in 2013. For a small city, that's amazing.

Health Care

For the first time, the World Bank has explicitly included the reduction of inequality as one of its goals, labeled as shared prosperity. In a speech in Washington, DC earlier this month, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim (a medical doctor) linked inequality and health care. Kim said:

"As the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa shows, the importance of this objective could not be more clear. The battle against the infection is a fight on many fronts – human lives and health foremost among them. But it is also a fight against inequality. The knowledge and infrastructure to treat the sick and contain the virus exists in high and middle income counties. However, over many years, we have failed to make both accessible to low income people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. So now, thousands of people in these countries are dying because, in the lottery of birth, they were born in the wrong place."

So much has been written about Ebola--the scaremongering media coverage of the few US cases diagnosed so far is itself a gross form of inequality. Three cases against thousands, but the three command intense interest. Sadly, for a lot of people our world amounts to an Us vs. Them proposition. Some social media posts even suggested that aid workers in the Ebola zone should just stay put if they get infected: too bad for them--they risked their lives to help foreigners in faraway places that don't matter.  

This makes me angry. Because we share a common humanity. Every life is equally important. We should care about the desperately ill facing this deadly outbreak, without regard to nationality, and if we have the means to help them--as individuals and as countries--we should. (Doctors Without Borders is doing heroic work, if you're looking for donation options.)

Globalization has gutted national borders in many respects. Countries no longer operate in isolation from one another to the extent they did in the past. And businesses benefit from that--our governments promote the free flow of goods and money--exports and investments. If I can buy fresh flowers in the supermarket that were grown in Colombia, drink coffee from Guatemala, receive telecom service from workers in India, fly to Germany to visit my friend, wear clothes made by women in Bangladesh (and before them Vietnam, Macau, El Salvador, or Mexico, because the textile industry is ultra-mobile), use a computer built with parts from everywhere, then I must also be prepared to extend a hand to the people who live in those places. (Also those who seek to migrate--but that's a topic for another day.) We are connected, and not only by commerce. Think art, literature, food, film, music, social media, family...countless connections.

It's not fair to accept the advantages of globalization and reject responsibility for problems beyond our borders. It's inequitable.

A Musical Interlude

Here, as promised: a song about inequality (and a few other things). Thanks to the great Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows "that the dice are loaded."

Thank you for hanging in there, and please read on if you'd like a few more...

Links, Stats and Studies about Inequality

Oxfam, a key partner of Blog Action Day 2014, published a study in January 2014 showing that the 85 richest people in the world owned wealth equivalent to that held by the poorest HALF of the world's population. Since then, the situation has worsened--now just 67 billionaires own half of the world's wealth. This week, Credit Suisse released its Global Wealth Report 2014 which confirmed the continuing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, even while total global wealth has grown to record heights since the financial crisis. (See The Guardian for an excellent summary.)

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Half-life of Stories

In 2006 I bought a copy of Best American Short Stories and read the whole thing, marveling at the range of voices showcased in the anthology, the writers’ skillful execution of narrative. Until then I had not been a regular consumer of the BASS series, but Ann Patchett was the editor that year. I loved her novel Bel Canto. It was probably Patchett’s name on the cover, more than anything else, which moved me to pick up that particular edition of BASS.  

I was also hoping to figure out which literary journals were recognized for publishing the best work. The 2006 collection included the usual big names—The New Yorkers and Atlantic Monthlies of the world—as well as a handful of “little magazines”. I took note of the fact that out of twenty stories selected from thousands published in US and Canadian journals that year, two had originally appeared in One Story. Although One Story was founded in 2002, I had never heard of it, being clueless and about as far from New York City, geographically and psychologically, as one could get. I was impressed by One Story’s disproportionate representation in the pages of BASS.

And the stories themselves were stunning—Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore and Patrick Ryan’s So Much for Artemis had the power to transport a reader to an island in South Korea and Nixon-era Florida, respectively. I ingested them along with other stories by writers such as Yiyun Li and Edith Pearlman and David Bezmozgis, favorites of mine ever since. Their stories remain inside me, available at any moment for recall and examination. The character details or author names might fade, but they never disappear entirely. While my workaday life is full of forgetfulness, somehow it’s always easy for me to remember books and stories I’ve read.
One Story office

So I began to read One Story, to pay attention to the carefully published issues that appeared every few weeks in the mail. I referenced some of them as examples for the college class I teach and highlighted others in a recent post, Goodbye, 2013 Books. When One Story began offering online education programs I tried one, starting with Will Allison's excellent class on revision. That led me to apply for The Workshop for Writers, certain to be an intense experience.

Which brings me to last week. I’m still flying from the wonders of last week. Workshops run by Will and Marie-Helene Bertino (find an excerpt from her forthcoming novel on the Guernica site) anchored each morning with thoughtful, generous critiques of works in progress. Strangers newly arrived from Saskatchewan, Ontario, California, Brooklyn, wherever, turned into close readers and then friends—the funny, frank, supersmart friends you can trust with your work. Inspiring panel discussions, excursions and craft talks by Hannah Tinti and others rounded out the days with fresh insights and laughter. Heaps of practical advice and encouragement, superb organization, a beautiful venue in The Center for Fiction—who could ask for more? 

Final night, reading at the Old American Can Factory
Yet part of me was skeptical, at first. Wondering about the investment of time and money, worrying about my writing and getting along with others and—well, everything.

Until the third afternoon, in the middle of Patrick Ryan’s craft talk on merging two “okay” story ideas to create one compelling idea. I can mark the precise moment when I began to feel at home. It was halfway through his talk. He distributed a pamphlet, which turned out to be the 2012 prototype issue for One Teen Story, the journal of which he is now Editor-in-Chief. The featured story? My old friend, So Much for Artemis, showing up for a visit. Patrick’s story, which I remembered well but hadn’t connected with the entertaining speaker at the front of the room. The life of the original has been extended through, first, the BASS selection, and then re-publication in One Teen Story. I'm sure it has found a new audience with each appearance. Afterward, I asked Patrick to sign my copy, and he told an anecdote about how he learned that Patchett had chosen his work for BASS 2006. I told him I had just finished her new collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (so good—read it). 

How strange is it that eight years after I first read the tale that introduced me to One Story, One Story handed it back to me? Call it coincidence if you like, but I know the explanation. That story's life isn't over.