Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Lunch Thief

Some years ago, when Winnifred was the regular staffer and I was a student employee at the Peak, I had my first experience of the Office Lunch Thief. The difference between this thief and subsequent thieves in my work life is that his identity was not a mystery. We all knew it was Dean. Dean was at that time a cartoonist and photo editor of the Peak. He was also a dance student and his first class ended at 10:30 in the morning, well before lunch time. So rather than eat his lunch and be hungry at noon, he would eat our's. Or whoever's. We took to leaving larger and more pointed notes on the lunch bags we put in the fridge. "No eating, not even you, Dean." Things like that. But Dean was too tricky for that. Dean realized right away that the bigger and more threatening the sign, the better the lunch. We reached an apotheosis of kinds with the brownie incident. Win and I had been to some sort of chocolate event and had gotten two extremely expensive brownies to have in our lunch the next day. Sure enough, in spite of nasty note, they were gone well before noon.

I admit it, I yelled at Dean. He was apologetic. He offered us an original, signed cartoon to make up for the brownies. Working on the theory that Dean would be famous some day and his juvenilia might be worth something, we accepted.

We are currently unpacking the stuff that has been in storage since we left Vancouver in early 2000. Among the items we found was the cartoon, charmingly signed. It is undated but it was drawn on the back of a layout flat, presumably circa 1990. I know it was well before he began his long string of appearances as a junkie in a series of tv shows. I guess it was the long hair he had at the time, but he was always being cast as a junkie. I believe it was on "The Commish" in 1994 that he got a single line of deathless dialogue: as the cop is dumping his crack down the sewer, Dean says, "Oh man, that's cold."

To check how our deal worked out, I looked on eBay for Dean memorabilia. I did find a doodle being sold for $100, so I'm guessing our cartoon is worth... more than a couple of brownies. For now, however, we plan to sit tight on our investment.

I should also point out that Dean is not actually the most brazen Office Lunch Thief I have encountered. In one library I worked at, where half the staff were perenially-hungry teenage pages, there was a lunch thief who would rifle through everyone's lunches and get the nicest thing out of each bag. We came to refer to this activity as a "getting a combo meal," as in, "Lunch thief got a combo meal so I need to run out and get some more sushi."

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Flashback in Urdu

The Messenger, September 7, 1981

There you have it. A 1981 Urdu-language cartoon of Ronald Reagan, from the Toronto fortnightly newspaper The Messenger. Without even being able to read it, I feel it says it all.

I do have the best job. I find stuff like this all the time.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Depressing Books for Happy People

I have always thought of us as a cheerful family, which is why it is so strange that we particularly love art that's a bit, how to say, emotionally fraught. There was the time my mother came to visit us in New York and what she really wanted to do was see a play about torture, a museum exhibit about slavery and some public art about starvation. So I was amused this afternoon when I got an email from her:
Just finished reading Christa Wolf's book which I mentioned, One Day A Year. If you want the whole (tragic) history of the world 1960-2000, this is the book for you!
And it was with only a bit of irony that I replied:
Sounds awesome! I'll take it out at SFU once the new semester starts, because then I'll get the full semester loan. I looked it up and it's 600+ pages.
I was chuckling over my mother's tendencies, when I looked in my purse and found the book I had recently recommended to her, Defying Dixie, a history of the precursors to the civil rights movement, most of which were Communist or other far-left movements and which have been completely erased by history. Fascinating book; not cheerful. I also recently made Winnifred and my mother come with me to a play by Dürrenmatt, the guy who famously said, "a story is not over until it has taken the worst possible turn." And both of them plus Future Minister of Discourse were dragged to the Tony Kushner adaptation of "The Dybbuk," which, with its theme of God's betrayal of those who love him the best, makes the original (which is about the betrayal we propagate when we forget old loved ones--a metaphor for first-world Jews' failure to save more Eastern European Jews from starvation during WWI) seem like a walk in the park.

Then I remembered that Writing Sister recently recommended Everything Must Change, a novel about "asceticism and devotion to a cause in a materialistic modern society." That sounds like a hoot too.

Ozzie Sister occasionally sends me reading material from Down Under; most memorably a great book about Holocaust survivors. So beautifully written, almost poetry. You could kill yourself it's so sad.

It seems we've all got the bug: hard art is our thing. Ah, well. Happy families are all alike, anyway.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Freylekhn and/or Kushern Peysekh Aykh Ale

The Canadian Jewish Review, April 1954

And neither is my kitchen. Nonetheless, I want to wish you all a freylekhn (joyous) and, if you choose, kushern (kosher) Passover, with plenty of horseradish and enough liberation for everyone.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring is Sprung

The first really nice day of spring, so we decided to walk over to the Sun Yat Sen Gardens and walk around in the sunshine. That is indeed me in the distance below the magnolia flower. I can't remember the last time I just sat and looked at flowers.

We grabbed a cup of free tea from the art gallery in the gardens. Beside the tea urn they had a poster translating some of the advice given in a classical Chinese book on tea culture. I noticed the book suggested it was best to avoid sullen servants in order to fully enjoy your tea. I think I can safely say that I have never been troubled by sullen servants while drinking tea.

As often is the case in the gardens on a nice day, there was a bridal party taking pictures. They had a slew of photographers and numerous helpers, and were taking their time about it. I can only assume they didn't actually get married today, just got the pictures done, because there was no sense of hurry-up. In fact, they seemed to have been there for several hours already. Two of the young women on the groom's side were knitting when they weren't needed to keep the bride's train off the ground. It was easy to keep the sides of the family straight because the bride's side was Chinese and impeccable, and the groom's side was Caucasian and a bit hippyish. They shlepped from one part of the garden to another, as each photographer in turn decided what background he or she wanted for which grouping of people.

They also had a cooler with them, from which lunch appeared. One of the hippyish males in the party practiced his four-club juggling. After that, the bride re-applied her make-up and the whole thing started up again.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What is it?

Seen at SFU. If you take the stairs under the Rotunda to the bus stop, this structure hangs above you. It appears to be--oh I don't know--unwound videotape? used to create a kind of suspension bridge from one side of the Rotunda to the other--about 10 meters. Christo-inspired installation art? A statement about the accelerated aging of "new media"? Bored/drunken end-of-semester undergrads on a prank?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Unified Theory of Spinach

Many of you have worried that it's been so long since I've posted about food. You were hoping this wasn't a sign that we've stopped eating. The truth is, we've been eating, but not as well as we should be. We've both been working too much and not spending time trying new foods and examining unusual fruits, or even just cooking the stuff we like to eat. Today, however, I am attempting to reverse the trend. I am cooking spinach.

Spinach has been observed to have the following properties:
  • spinach, organic spinach in particular, must be eaten or cooked within 48 hours of purchase
  • time spent cooking spinach breaks down to 20% making the recipe; 30% cleaning the spinach; and 50% wondering if you've actually got that spinach clean
These observations, coupled with the fact that spinach is one of my favourite vegetables, led me to the following determination:
  • when eating out, spinach must be ordered
That way, someone else has to worry about the cleanliness and timeliness of the spinach.

However, today all the factors came together. Our food was delivered yesterday, with spinach; and today is my day off, so I can cook it well before the sell-by date; and since it's a day off mid-week (not full of brunches and other social responsibilities the way weekends are), I can take a leisurely approach to the cleaning process. And voila: spinach soup.

Years ago Winnifred taught me her cook-by-colour concept. She finds it aesthetically pleasing on multiple levels to use all similar-coloured ingredients in a dish. So for this soup I used: virgin rosemary-infused olive oil; scallions; celery; spinach; and, it must be said, garlic, which I posit as the mood-ring of savory ingredients. The result was indeed a very green soup that looked very nice in some bone-white Chinese bowls, and tasted just dandy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Enjoy the books, Marlon!

Way back in December I got an email from Jen on the Moon, who is part of a librarian social group in New York. Their group decided to adopt a school in New Orleans to send books to. The slow pace of recovery in New Orleans is a huge point of frustration. So this group in New York set up an Amazon wish list; the teachers at A.P. Tureaud Elementary School added their desired books to the list, and then anyone who wanted to could choose a book from the list that would get sent to the school. They started with about 250 books on the list, but you know, you can't stop librarians from buying books. I bought three, and all the librarians I sent the message on to enthusiastically ordered books as well. 250 books is not that many, so as they got close to having no books left on their wish list, but there were still plenty of librarians with their wallets out, they added more stuff: classroom sets of dictionaries, books in Spanish, multiple copies of books by Black authors, books about jazz and New Orleans culture. One of the organizers of the New York group, a New Orleans native, went down to visit her family and took some pictures of the school and the area. It is wonderful to see the atmosphere the school has created in the middle of such devastation. (Here's an example of what the kids go through some days.)

The other day I got a lovely thank-you card from Marlon at Tureaud. I think it's Marlon. Could be Marion or Mylan. (I erased the last name for student privacy). On the front of the card an adult had written ''570 books and counting.''

For most libraries, our number one problem is shelf space. There are so many wonderful, useful, beloved books, and no library can hope to have enough shelf space for all of them. For libraries in New Orleans, there are two problems: a rather more severe than usual lack of shelf space (eight public libraries were completely destroyed), and a serious book shortage. We can't do much about the first problem, but we can get all over the second one. As an added bonus, I just found out that A.P. Tureaud himself, an important civil rights lawyer who won all the most important desegregation cases in Louisiana, worked as a library clerk while putting himself through school. It all comes back to libraries in the end.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Super Plus

I am now entering the Super Plus phase of my life.

This realization came to me as I looked in a box of tampons I had bought. It was one of those boxes with various sizes of tampons, but the only ones I had used were Super Plus.

In my forties many things have turned from a trickle to a flood to a positive torrent. Dental appointments, changes in glasses prescriptions, and new grey hairs were once occasional irritants. Now they are regular preoccupations. Not that they are all negative! I am actually looking forward to having more grey hair since I have not been able to dye my hair for years. My hair is too dark to put a colour in the way it is. In younger days I double-bleached it with Loreal Super Blondissima to get it light enough to take a colour (it was still far from blonde). When I found out how bad the bleach was for my skin, I decided to wait for the grey. Now the day is almost here. I am thinking of alternating orange and green as my hair colours. Maybe the occasional red.

This led me to ponder the possibility that I could look on the entire post-40 Super Plus phenomenon as a re-branding opportunity. After all, Super and Plus are both positively-connoted words, as the business world knows.

Those aren't bifocals, those are Super Plus glasses.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Latest in Machine Translation

The subconscious is indeed a wonderful thing. My shabbes nap produced a very clear image of a voice translation machine. Now someone just has to build it.

Basically, it was about the size and shape of an Etch-a-sketch. The dials at the bottom and the push buttons on the left allowed you to choose input and output languages, using the menu on the right of the screen. Then you spoke into the built-in microphone at the bottom, and the text appeared on the left-hand side of the screen.

In my dream, my real-life Chinese-speaking colleague and I were arguing over the best way to produce Cantonese to Yiddish translation.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

This Year at Marienbad

Well, Reader, we have not been the best of correspondents thus far in March. And why not, you ask? We have been Very Busy. I have an end-of-March deadline for a project at work; and Winnifred's been doing a lot of singing with her various choirs and such.

But we decided it was necessary to Relax and Get Away and Get In Touch with the Healing Spirit Within and stuff like that. So here we are, relaxing.

That's Winnifred in one of the outdoor hot springs at Harrison, this morning when it was raining. Personally, I always prefer the hot tubs when it's raining or snowing or sleeting. That way your head is being cooled off and you don't have to get out as often to avoid over-relaxation.

Just to put that shot in context, the hotel is right under a mountain range. Behind the tubs in this picture, you can see the looming mountain, with the fog up above mingling with the steam rising from below.

This afternoon the rain cleared and we got dramatic sun-rimmed clouds (the sun was already behind the mountains). I took this sitting on the patio of our room, where I was drinking a chai latte and reading Out Stealing Horses.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that it's all beer and skittles, Reader. No, we have been maintaining a gruelling physical regimen the whole time we've been here. We have: walked out of our room, all the way across the patio, and into the hot tub (several times); to the lobby bar to buy chai lattes, and back; to the spa for a massage; and Winnifred went out to the end of the dock on the lake across the street, to take pictures.

Winnifred's pictures will shortly be available via the link on the right (where it says "Winnifred's Photo Albums"). Assuming we have enough energy left when we get home to upload them. This relaxing is serious work.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Aunt Rose, of Blessed Memory

Aunt Rose would have turned 100 this month. She died last summer shortly before we left New York. We were lucky to have lived in the same city as she did for the last seven years of her life.

She was too sick for a 99th birthday party, but two years ago for her 98th we joined Aunt Rose, her daughter Sue, and a bunch of Sue's friends (when you're 98, your own friends are dead) at a Chinese restaurant near her old folks home in Battery Park City. I was very glad that I had managed to find her mother's ship-docking record from the Ellis Island records online a few weeks before her birthday. She had forbidden us to bring presents, but she wasn't going to turn down the reproduction of her mother's ship-docking record we brought along! In fact, just about every guest turned up with some sort of non-gift gift that Aunt Rose couldn't refuse.

One of the guests was professor of public health at a local college. She told Aunt Rose she would be reporting back to her gerontology class about having dinner with a 98-year-old. Perhaps Aunt Rose could give her some insight to share with her class about how she managed to live so long? Aunt Rose turned to the professor, gripped her wrist with icy cold fingers, looked deep into her eyes, and spit out, "Bad luck."

A little while later we were opening our fortune cookies. Aunt Rose couldn't read hers because the type was small and the light was low. She handed it to Sue to read out. Sue read out in stentorian tones, "You will live to be 100." Aunt Rose got a horrified look on her face. "It doesn't really say that, does it? You're just torturing me." Sue passed the fortune to me. I concurred. "That's what it says." We strung her along for a while. Finally, we acknowledged it wasn't true. What the fortune actually said was, "Never smell the inside of a hat." That is actually what it said, but by that time everyone thought we were just making things up.

That 98th birthday party was one of the most fun evenings I ever spent in New York.
Miss you, old lady.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Now Officially Cranky and Middle -Aged

I had a genuine old fogey moment on my commute home this evening. I was actually prompted to forgo my Canadian "pretending not to hear what the person beside you is saying in a perfectly audible voice" practice.

Two physics graduate students were talking on the bus, sitting across the aisle from each other in the manner of young men who wish to avoid being thought a fairy by sitting beside--and possibly brushing legs with--another male. As I was sitting down beside one of them, the guy across the aisle said, "And you can't even go study with Schrieffer anymore because he's in jail."

The guy beside me said, "Yeah, I heard that. He got two years for vehicular manslaughter. That's awesome! Well, I mean, not for him."

"No, but it was great for the guy he killed," I said. I honestly don't know where it came from.

"Uh, no I guess it sucked for him too," the kid acknowledged. I pulled my book out of my bag and went back to "pretending not to hear what the person beside you is saying in a perfectly audible voice."

I think the guy across the aisle must have agreed with me, because he said, "Yeah, apparently he had a whole long record of being pulled over going 100 miles an hour, and he would say, 'I'm a Nobel Prize winner, I can do what I want'."

They went back to their topic about where to go after grad school, eventually settling on two post-docs as the most they would take before going into industry. I sighed inwardly. Both those young fellows, should they actually complete their doctorates, will accept not only as many post-docs as they can, but one-year 4-4 teaching contracts and anything else that comes their way. If Schrieffer weren't in jail, they still wouldn't be going to study with him, because his in-box would be full of fawning emails from graduate students at small Canadian universities.

I can't really blame them. They're just young and, uh, young. But I wish they'd either sit beside each other, so I'm not thrust in the middle of their conversations, or shut up. Remember that scene in Star Trek IV where they go back in time to more-or-less now, and Spock uses the Vulcan nerve pinch to render unconscious a guy playing loud music on a bus? No? Well, I think of it often.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Moon Falling Into Earth's Shadow

This evening after dinner Winnifred insisted we go outside to look for the moon. I didn't know what she was on about, but it turned out there was a lunar eclipse underway. Boy was that ever pretty. Red and soft like a water colour. As we watched it got streakier and smaller. It was almost dissolving. We watched for a while from the front porch, and took some pictures. An hour later, when we left the house to go to the gym, the moon wasn't visible. An hour after that, we came out and it was back: whole, white, perfectly undisturbed. As if the whole thing had never happened.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Smoking and Mirrors

The scene: a suburban grocery store, 9 pm on a Saturday evening

A man and woman, both 40-ish, are at the cashier, where a huge pile of food is being rung in. The man is at the end of the checkout counter piling full bags into a cart. He murmurs something about starting to take it out to the car; the woman nods distractedly. She is talking to the cashier--a young woman I estimate to be 16--about not being able to find liquid laundry soap, only powder. The cashier looks down the closest aisle, ducks her head a little. Spots it, and seeing the recognition on her face, the woman turns around, all but smacks herself on the forehead: oh gosh, right in front of me! Can't see a thing. She walks off to get some, grabs a few other things, comes back and piles them on the end of the conveyor belt, pulls out her wallet--the cashier is almost done--then looks around and says, "oh geez, he's probably out there having a smoke!" and trundles off to wrangle errant hubby back to help carry the rest of the groceries. The cashier finishes the job no more than five seconds later, looks around; no sign of woman or hubby. She waits--we wait--then it starts to seem too long. Something in her manner alerts the night manager, another young woman, this one probably all of 20. A whispered colloquy. The manager shows the cashier how to suspend a transaction, then goes out to the parking lot to look for the missing customers. The cashier rings in our five items; we pay. The manager returns, alone; more whispers. They are examining the amount on the bottom of the receipt.

On the way out to the car, Winnifred says, I bet the smoking ban has been a real boon to the grifter community. Ready-made excuse to step outside.

(No such excuse was available to Ryan and Tatum O'Neal, who, in 1973, when I was eight, introduced me to the concept of the con man.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Currently Reading

A few minutes into my commute home this evening I finish the story I'm reading (Avrom Reyzen's "Gvirishe Matse" from his collection Lider, Dertseylungen, Zikhroynes), and while I do have a book in my bag, it is one I've already read and am returning to the library on my way home.

But no worries! I always have my palm pilot with me to get me through just such inkless moments, and I have another 100 pages of Moby Dick to get through. I love reading big books on my tiny palm pilot. It makes me feel particularly geeky. Reach into my bag for my palm pilot... not where it usually is... not in the other pocket... left it at home, it seems. At least, my cell phone isn't there either, so presumably I left both of them charging on my desk. Just when I need it! How irritating. Fume my way through the rest of my commute. I mean, how can a person go 40 minutes without some text? I start looking over the shoulder of the student beside me: she is reading about speciation in a particular kind of conifer. It works for a few minutes, but she reads too slowly and never gets around to turning the page. Oh, I get it. She's not reading, she's studying. We are already at mid-terms. She is committing the speciation of conifers to memory. The guy across the aisle has a newspaper but I don't see a spare section I can ask for. He is going through it very systematically as well, not a good sign in terms of sharing.

I get off the bus at Main and Hastings and walk over to the Carnegie Library. I return my book and ask the fellow to check if my holds have come in. Two have! They are The Myth of Mars and Venus, yet another linguistics book, and, you probably won't believe this, Reader, but the other book is Duma Key by Stephen King. I have never read a Stephen King novel before but something about the reviews for this one made me curious. And the great thing is, if you read American reviews before the Canadian edition has come out, you can get on the hold list early on. So now I have this 600-page hardcover novel to haul around, just when I was congratulating myself on reading big books in a more convenient format. Still, my first Stephen King novel. I will keep you posted.

I know there is still one question in your mind, and I should answer it before I go to bed. Your question is, I assume, "How was the Reyzen story?" Well, I'm so glad you asked, because it was really interesting. It is set in a matzoh factory in, one assumes, Belarus. The workers are excited because the richest woman in town is coming to bake her matzohs at their factory. This is a tradition, for those who have the time and money, where you can actually go into the matzoh factory and take part in baking some matzohs so your Passover table will be graced with the fruits of your own labour. (Perhaps the Chocolate Lady can give us more input on this custom.) Anyway, the bigshot lady is coming to bake her matzohs, she's coming to bake her matzohs--they are all excited about the prospect of the tip she will leave them and the new silk kerchief they can buy for Passover... well, I won't give the whole story away, but suffice to say that Avrom Reyzen knew a thing or two about class struggle.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Gung Hay Fat Choy

For the 1985 grand opening of a new grocery store in Chinatown, the advertising campaign took the form of a series of hand-drawn images of products, rather than photographs.

Cream Wafers, with the box decoration carefully copied.
Soy sauce, only 79 cents.

We found this delightful ad while sorting out the 1985 issues of the Chinese Times, a Vancouver Chinese-language daily that ran from 1915 to 1992. We're now up to 1987 in our scanning; by mid-year the whole run should be online.

A whole immigrant experience is summed up its pages, even if you can't read a word. The paper gets suddenly larger in 1979, when the community is able to afford more advertising. It stops just as suddenly in 1992, when the influx of Hong Kong immigrants brings with it rival newspapers. Over the years the publication wavers back and forth between left-to-right and right-to-left page order, hovering between worlds, between ways of speaking and organizing ideas, between there and here and between then and now. Advertising acquires more English words; headshots of women begin to appear; addresses move out and away from Chinatown, down the Fraser and Cambie corridors to begin settling middle-class Marpole.

Like most newspapers, there are masthead mistakes. Dates repeat or are different in the English and Chinese headers. English words are inserted by hand or on pasted-in typewritten strips. Pagination is suddenly reversed, with the pages of the middle section running backwards, then just as suddenly rights itself to run forward again. The same ad appears on the same page for months, years, decades; then drops off the page and is never seen again. Another ad runs twice in one issue, even twice on the same page. I imagine a cramped series of offices on the top floor of a Chinatown building; the frantic rush to get tomorrow's paper ready; the search for someone who can type in English but take direction in Chinese. I imagine a new, younger compositor putting a section together Western-style: the editor finds out but it's too late to remake the section. When the same guy goes on holiday for a week, none of the old-timers remember to change the English date on the paper.

The new Hong Kong newspapers can't compete with this. They are more professional, they have more pictures, they get the dates right. But can they tell these stories?

Saturday, February 2, 2008

E. E. Cummings vs. Virginia Woolf

I have been reading and enjoying a fun book of linguistics, with about the best title I've ever heard, Far From the Madding Gerund.

The book is a collection of entries from a multi-author blog I read religiously, Language Log. Even so, the book is useful because it brings together entries topically, and because I have not gone through the entire online archives to find entries of interest that were written before I started reading the blog. Of the book's two main authors, one tends more towards elegance and reasoned argument; the other towards bombast and apoplexy.* I find myself agreeing more often with the first, but wildly enjoying the writing of the second. Is that so wrong?

I bring this all up, reader, because an item from the book caught my eye as I was reading on the bus yesterday. Mr. Bombast objected to this poem by e. e. cummings (or E. E. Cummings--turns out either one is right):

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;

wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
- the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other; then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Because I'm not American I did not read this poem in school. Apparently it is widely taught; several web sites refer to it as Cummings' best-known poem. Although I read a bunch of Cummings as a teenager, I don't remember ever coming across this particular poem; more surprisingly, perhaps, I never had to help a student find criticism of it when I was a literature librarian in New York, where it may even be on the syllabus. So you see, I found it a pretty rude shock when I read it yesterday on the bus.

Now, Mr. Bombast disputes the opinion given in the first stanza. "When a grammarian kisses you, you stay kissed," he says. I have no means of evaluating this statement, but I am willing to take his word for it (and frankly, if either he or Mr. Elegant felt like kissing me, I wouldn't object--that's how much I like their book). What shocked me, by contrast, was the last few lines. "[L]ife's not a paragraph," Cummings claims. It isn't? As someone who finds books as vivid and meaningful as any other aspect of life, I can't seem to make this assertion make sense. I toss it back and forth in my head, but no, life still seems a lot like a paragraph. But there is worse to come: "And death i think is no parenthesis"--surely this is a veiled criticism of Virginia Woolf?

You see, in the second part of To the Lighthouse a number of events, both consequential and trivial, take place in tiny vignette flashbacks or flash forwards, marked by parentheses (or brackets in some editions). One such is this:
[Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]
And as if that weren't bad enough, a few pages later one of the daughters, having been married parenthetically, also succumbs thus:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]
When I first read To the Lighthouse, which I only did well into my thirties because Shmu told me I had to, when I got to Mrs. Ramsay's death I actually gasped. When I got to Prue's I was all but done in. So there you have it. Life is a paragraph; death is a parenthesis. What was Cummings thinking?


* He begins one entry: "I'd like to take a minute of Language Log time to slap [a certain New York Times science writer] real hard upside the head, if that's all right." What follows is more like what I'm used to calling, in scholarly situations, a serious spanking.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Snow Day

Few things in this life are nicer than a Snow Day. There is absolutely no way to get up Burnaby Mountain today, so I am happily at home, still pyjama'd, looking out at a soft snowy world. Above, Winnifred's picture of the ice on the pond at the Sun Yat Sen Gardens, taken Sunday. Today, assuming that ice thickened up a bit, it is probably under six centimetres of snow. Below, some astonished-looking dead fish at a Chinatown market, gorgeous in their loopy rigidity.

I am using my day of freedom to do some planning for an upcoming conference; to write an overdue book review; to read; to blog; and to do the laundry. Time will also be made to drink hot cocoa and to do sudoku. The soothing sound of Someone Else scraping the accumulated ice from the front walk is just about enough to send me back to bed for a late-morning nap.

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Last month when I described a rather odd chocolate bar and its even odder product insert, I promised to follow up once the product had been both eaten and researched.

Just to refresh our memories, this was basically a large chocolate bar made of nothing but chocolate, hemp seeds and almonds. The strange thing about it was that it made a pretty amazing number of health and happiness claims, all of them in 10-point type on a full sheet of paper. That kind of thing, you will recall, lead me to think that it's more of a proselytizing effort than a food source. One of the claims was that one half to a complete chocolate bar should be eaten for breakfast, after which you probably won't need to eat again for quite a while, ergo you will lose weight.

Reader, we ate it. It was absolutely impossible for either of us--generally considered "healthy eaters"--to eat as much as a half of it at one sitting. Hemp seed, I should have remembered from many delicious meals at the table of the Chocolate Lady, sticks to the ribs. I have no doubt if you managed to eat a whole one of these babies you could do without food for much of the day. You might need to take a long nap also. We each ate, for example, a quarter of the chocolate bar before going to the gym, where we worked out for more than an hour, then came home and didn't eat another meal for several more hours. So the first claim, one made by implication, that it is very filling: check.

Also important to note: quite good tasting.

Will it help you lose weight? Well, it's 1220 calories, which is well more than my usual breakfast and lunch put together. It's possible it is filling enough, if you can choke the whole thing down, to make dinner virtually unnecessary. But it would be just as effective to simply make it a habit to eat a salad for dinner every night.

The second half of my research, into the potential cult-status of the manufacturer, has met further frustration. The business librarian at work helped me search a few databases of Canadian companies. Apparently privately-held companies are not really required to give much information about themselves to anyone. We did not find them listed. We tried to find information regarding their Nutritional Health Claims license number (that's the license that allows them to claim the product cures diabetes and celiac disease) but couldn't get even a mailing address. The company identification number, 299614 Alberta Ltd., gave me the only real insight. One of the things I found was this:

Well, you don't have to click on that link to see what it's about. The comment left by a few of our readers made a joke about hemp. But perhaps they were all too right. Maybe it's not a cult, just a company with a second product line they'd rather keep out of the limelight. Which might mean the writing style, which I took for an excess of religious enthusiasm, could be nothing more than what happens when you let a stoner write your PR.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Splice "Which": Where You At?

Among the ways I amused myself when we were living in Brooklyn was finding things I said that they couldn't understand, or identifying things they said which I found odd, amusing, or useful, and previously unknown to me.

Here are some of the things I found myself saying that elicited confusion in New York:
  • a change is as good as a rest
  • to tear a strip off of somebody
  • to go up one side of somebody and down the other
  • to twig to something/be twigged to something
  • Bob's your uncle
  • grotty
  • SOL
  • beater (old car)
  • pastry (pie crust)
  • take a boo
  • tickety-boo
  • heel (of bread)
  • laid on (provided by the host)
Honestly, I don't know how they get by without these guys.

Some things are simple idiolects but might still be recognizable to other Canadians. Whenever there's any kind of extreme weather, Winnifred and I say to each other, "the wind she blow on Lac St. Pierre," a reference to a poem memorized by generations of Canadian school children and still alive in the popular consciousness. Never mind the poem stopped being taught well before I went to school; and never mind that our "quote" doesn't actually appear in the poem. Somehow, you say, "the wind she blow on Lac St. Pierre" (with a fakey Quebecois accent) and it makes sense. "Gee that's a heck of a wind, eh?" Nobody thinks anything of it. Say it in Brooklyn, however, and people think you're strange.
On the opposite side of the equation are the terms and usages we found exotic. The famous "all right" pronounced with no consonants provided many hours of amusement as we attempted to mimic it. We took tips from strangers on the subway (or "train" as they say) and tried to elicit it from locals of our acquaintance. The New York-ism we have most fully adopted is what Winnifred calls the "splice which." Neither of us can remember if this is a term she heard or read somewhere, or if she made it up. There might be a better way to describe it. At any rate, it goes like this:

She's yelling at me for coming in after curfew, which that's not even fair because my brother does it all the time.

She's yelling at me for never cleaning my room, which it's none of her business anyway.

See how useful that is? It is so much more emphatic than a grammatical "which isn't even fair" would be, and much more urgent and immediate than starting a new sentence. They just splice it together with a "which" and Bob's your uncle. We use it all the time now. I could not say why our examples are both from the realm of teenage unhappiness, except perhaps that teenage distress is a natural breeding ground for linguistic novelty.

Then there are instances where the same phrase means one thing in Vancouver and something else in New York. In New York, "Where you at?" is a request for simple factual information. "Where are you right now?" Where as in Vancouver, "where are you at?" (we're a grammatical bunch) would mean, "what is your psychic/emotional state at the present time?" There are instances in popular culture when both meanings seem to be present, but in New York I only ever heard it used to mean literal geographic coordinates. So last night when Winnifred and I were meeting up with my mom for dinner, I called her as I got out of the train--pardon me, SkyTrain--and asked "Where you at?" and she told me she was just parking in front of my mom's house. Another Vancouverite would be likely to say, "oh okay, you know, hard day at work, etc."

Monday, January 7, 2008

Who Are You and What Have You Done With the Real Students?

I just need to share that today was the first day of the semester and by noon the library was full--crowded, even--with students studying.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Borscht Of Unusual Size

Normally we think of our ancestral homelands (those on both the Jewish and Goyish sides of the family) as the locus of large beets that might account for the amount of borscht I just made. But the problem was not in fact the beets, of which I had three (3) smallish ones. The problem was all the other stuff I kept thinking of to put in the pot that would make it good.

In general, I would say a borscht can be said to be any soup which starts with a beet and an onion. All else, you might say, is commentary. But you know, there has just been a lot of eating at my mom's; eating out; not eating; filling up on the obscene amount of chocolate the holidays brought us; etc.; and meanwhile the vegetables in the fridge were not getting any younger. So I thought, I'll make me a quick borscht to use up those beets; plus you can put carrots and potatoes in borscht and I've got some of those sitting around that might want eating.

Then I noticed some celery and green peppers. Then I remembered that some people think walnuts are the perfect thing to go with beets, in whatever form. Then I read on the internet where you can use grated apples as a borscht garnish. Then I thought I might as well try that roasted beet style instead of the regular boiled beet thing. And so on. It got bigger and bigger; it took half the night; anyone want some borscht?

I know I read somewhere about borscht being the food of love, Yiddishly speaking, but I just can't remember where I saw it. No doubt due to the colour and the variety of extravagant presentation styles it engenders.