Friday, April 24, 2009


I am in Tucson, sitting outside in clear dry air and brilliant sunshine, hearing birds singing in the trees.  In a few hours there's a plane to catch back to Toronto (via a stop in Denver's surprisingly dreary airport, alas!) but for now I'm loving the feeling of warmth (even in the early morning it's soft and warm here) and the unfamiliar southwestern scents in the air.

Last night we gave a talk and slide-show at the Center for Creative Photography.  It was fun and very engaging, because the audience and the venue were terrific.  We love being invited to university events; the people who come are generally very curious and interested in wide-ranging discussion.  And so it was last night.  (We also had the deep pleasure of seeing old friends again: John and Tilly Warnock, whom we know from Laramie, now live here and came to the talk.  Fabulous to reconnect with them.)  

Thank-you Tucson, and Arizona U, and in particular, thank-you to Cass Fey, who has taken great care of us throughout the planning and our time here,  and to Britt, whose idea it was to invite us in the first place.  

We had the usual messing around with projectors, of course.  Cass kept her cool, and finally the third projector, not without some last-minute hiccups, did a wonderful job (though needing the occasional manual adjustment to the auto-focus, thanks to a patient student intern!). 

Now that projectors are not being made any more, we know that our days of showing slides are numbered.  And we know, too, that for people in charge of these events, the end of slide- shows will be a relief.  Digital projection is now the standard and feels less tricky to everyone but us! 

BUT:  I love the way light passes through film and arrives on the screen.  I love the idea that the film, that actual piece of film, was exposed to the light in, say, a village in India, and has travelled all the way to, say, an auditorium in Tucson, so that light can pass through it onto a screen and project an image of that woman's face, or hand, or...  It's magical.  And somehow I can't get as entranced by the idea of an electronic image being brought back, tidied up, and re-projected.  It's perhaps a childish attachment, my love of the concrete thing-itself?? Nonetheless real for all that!

I am sitting outside here in Tucson, using my laptop, thanks to a cafe with wi-fi.  Lovely and lucky to have technology, that makes communication portable, and the whole world accessible. I am grateful, truly.  But I can't help mourning the passage of older technologies, like slide projectors...  Life being made easier, in other words, isn't always life being made better, right?  

Perhaps the important thing to remember is that we do have choices.  For example, I can choose to write with pen on paper; I don't have to be typing and looking at a screen.  I don't have to feel enslaved by the computer.  If I do, it's up to me to shift the way I relate to it.  
Similarly, if I am prepared to travel with my own slide projector, I can go on giving slide shows. And on the other hand, if projecting slides places too huge a burden on others, I can scan the slides and show them digitally.  The trade-offs are there, each time, to be weighed.  

The main thing I try to remember about this tech change, (and other changes and challenges too, of course) is the old rule: no complaining!  no self-pity!  Figure it out for yourself, I say to myself (frequently, these days).  Change the way you do things, if you can; roll with it when you can't; and try to do it all with grace...

Monday, April 20, 2009


A grey drizzly day. No seeds or starts in the ground yet (our last frost can be as late as mid-May in downtown Toronto), but the ground is dug up, darkening in the soft rain, and looking expectant! I should get the snow peas in this week ... hmmm

It's perhaps predictable by now that these posts I'm writing weekly (more or less!) almost always seem to start with garden and weather updates. What is that? I wonder. Could be that old English thing of beginning conversations with the weather? I prefer to think that it's a way of anchoring where I am, what environment I'm in as I write. I know I like to picture where friends are when I am talking to them on the phone, or when they send an email. That's perhaps because my imagination is not abstract, but works with images, just like my memory.

How do we store these images? Somehow the brain sifts and sorts, by story and context, I guess. All that mental "muscle" will presumably start deteriorating with age (must have already, let's admit!). But there's still a remarkable amount in storage, and accessible.

I've been reminded of all these questions about memory and image in these last few days as I've been pulling photos for a talk and slide show at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. Jeff and I are speaking there this Thursday, April 24. We're delighted to be invited and to have a chance to see the Center. The images we'll show are all from the Indian subcontinent, from India as well as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan. They glow on the light table as I look at them, each a reminder of the art and beauty there is in everyday necessity in the subcontinent.

As I troll through our slides (yes, we are showing slides rather than skanned images), peering at them through the loupe, each one I look at (really it's more like looking "into" the image) transports me to the place and moment when I "made" the photo. And I know which ones are Jeff's without looking at the label because I know I didn't take them. How is that possible, to remember each one so confidently, after all these years of photographing? The brain is a remarkable gift! And it all happens without conscious effort, this storage and recall.

The same cannot be said for the process of organizing digital images (originals or skans). And that is the task that lies ahead in these coming months: Now that my cousin Jennifer Read has set me up with books and patient instruction, it's up to me to develop reflexes and work my way into feeling comfortable and somewhat confident working with Photoshop and Lightbox. Argh! is my reaction right now.

I'm going to work with my laptop (the little Mac that I am writing on right now), but, on Jen's advice, with a large screen when I am doing photo correction, and using a hard drive connected by a firewire (the laptop is a little small so it's better to have the space on the hard drive for working with these layers of image, etc). The raw photos straight from the camera, and also the tidied ones, need to be stored on another hard drive for backup, and also on DVD's. It all feels cumbersome, as anything does when we have no reflexes.  

I've also been very encouraged by what I've heard from Barcelona-based Jeff Koehler, who writes imaginatively and engagedly about food and is a fine photographer too. He's the only person I know of who works in the same way we do. (Check out his website at and his first book: La Paella; his second, which should be fabulous and useful, exploring unsung corners of the Mediterranean through couscous, pasta, and rice dishes, is due out this fall.) He has just switched to digital, last August, and already seems to be well launched. He too uses the firewire with external harddrive to sort and work on his images. I'm so grateful to have his advice too, because it gives me some confidence that I will eventually make the transition without too much crazed-ness!
So here goes!

Monday, April 13, 2009


Crocusses are bright spots in the dull earth, but otherwise spring feels pretty stalled here.  There are buds on the trees, but they don't dare fatten, with overnight temperatures well below freezing.  Yikes!  Can this possibly be mid-April?

I was reminded this evening as I was cooking about how the normal or everyday can suddenly enchant or delight when we see it with fresh eyes.  It was Dom's turn to cook, but he had asked if I would trade with him (he has several huge papers due and exams next week and wanted a long uninterrupted work time at the library).  So I made beef stew (starting by heating olive oil in the large Le Creuset, then tossing in mustard seeds to pop, and some nigella, before adding onion, and then the beef, cut fairly small).  The meat comes from an organic farmer named Gerald, whose family farm, Twin Creeks, is near Owen Sound, about three hours north of here.  He brings his meat down biweekly in winter, but weekly to the Trinity Bellwoods Market in summer (late May to late October), where he also sells vegetables and delivers CSA baskets to subscribers.  The meat is wonderful; his vegetables too.  Can't wait.

Anyway, not to go on and on about the meat (or local food issues!), once the stew had simmered itself into tender doneness (there were carrots and potatoes in there too, and some red wine, and a touch of soy sauce for extra depth), I put on the rice.  (Yes, I know, with potatoes in the stew, why another starch?  but rice is a wonderful absorber of flavour, and anyway, most of us in this household don't feel we've eaten unless there's rice.)  

A few minutes later I went to check if it was at the boil, and got caught by the lovely quivering look of the surface.  Some foam had collected there (I had rinsed the rice pretty thoroughly, but perhaps it could have done with more?) and at the edge in one or two places, the water was just beginning to bubble.  The movement sent tremblings across the surface.  It became tender and alive, a lovely hesitant being, in those moments.

I can't remember ever seeing just that effect before, though I have looked at rice coming to the boil almost daily.  Perhaps this time I had an eye for detail rather than "fact".  Usually the question in mind is "is it boiling so that I can cover it and lower the heat?" or "not yet?"  This time, rather than answering that question, I luckily somehow just got caught up in looking.

This all leads me to wonder whether there are magical sightings, brief glimpses of loveliness, to be had all over.  And I am sure the answer is yes.  I can already name a few:  There's the way an egg flows over a hot cast-iron pan as it's put on to fry... gorgeous, and not just because of the eventual deliciousness that the cook might be anticipating in his/her mind's eye (or palate).  There's the instant that garlic turns tan in the hot oil in a hot wok, click!, with little bubbles of oil beside it, and a gleaming tightening of the surface as it shifts to beige.  And, and...

But most often I don't notice any of these treasures, because I am intent on the next step, or thinking about the end result, rather than being in the moment.  And also I am usually not looking at the details, but at the whole process, so I miss the small lovelinesses.

Have you had these glimpses?

And out in the world: It's Thai New Year (the festival is called song kran, April 14 and 15), and a terribly troubled time in Bangkok.  At the moment ex-prime minister Thaksin is inciting instability from outside the country, using his tremendous wealth to buy trouble.  Our fingers are crossed that the political situation stabilises without violence and that the country can move forward out of the Thaksin era...  

Saturday, April 4, 2009


I'm a little late posting this week.  My apologies.  This business of re-entry is quite distracting, is one excuse I can give.  But the truth is that it is easy to lose track of the days.  The young people in the house, Dom and Tashi and Ian, have papers due and exams coming up, so they are extremely aware of each day and the obligations that face them.  I on the other hand have taxes and paperwork kinds of things, and images to send off to a magazine, but no fixed schedule, so I tend to lose track... And perhaps the changing weather of spring with its cold and warm and sun and rain, makes it tempting to just live day to day?

There's an update on my last post:  Chris our neighbour went and checked the house and pipes: no leaks he says, and the pump room was warm, but the pump seems to have lost its prime.  Now I've called Sandy Hamilton, the guy who knows all about plumbing, and he will get the pump primed and check the pipes, etc.  I can't wait to be up at the farm seeing it emerge with its winter-faded colours,and with the warm hints of fresh life colouring the trees, especially the dark red of the scrub willows in the wet patches.

And on the general subject of neighbourliness, another gift came my way this week: My cousin Jennifer, who takes on technology with intentness and intelligence, and knows all about digital photography (if you've been to you'll have seen her name mentioned with gratitude), has offered to drive to Toronto to help set up digital photo files and help generally get the digital photo library organised.  I am so grateful!  She arrives tomorrow.  Wish her luck, please, because I tend to get impatient with the technology.  I think the impatience is my way of dealing with feeling intimidated and out of my depth!  I have promised my kids that I will be calm...

Heading into this next week, with its load of significance for western Christians and for Jews, I wonder at that weight of the yearly religious cycle.  Some people are sustained or held together by it - by the certainty? the sense of identity and community? the continuity?  Others are oppressed by the weight of organised religion, and the sense of received thought and the bigotry and entrenched ideas of good and evil, insiders and outsiders, that seem an inevitable part of religion, especially in the west.  

Speaking of ritual and tradition, it's the time of year for Easter music.  And this year Taffelmusik, the wonderful baroque orchestra that my friend Dina enticed me into subscribing to almost ten years ago, performed Bach's St Matthew's Passion. We heard it on Thursday evening, a stunning performance. There was the orchestra and then a small (nine only) group of singers that together call themselves Les Voix Baroques.  Who needs a choir? we felt by the end, when such a wonderful balance is possible, and extraordinary suppleness too.  

On another subject entirely: I finally sent in the last article I owed for the Oxford Companion to Southeast Asian Food: highlanders and forest peoples.  It was difficult to do, for I am not used to working from anything but primary sources and my own experience.  Books are useful to confirm or help explain, but I am not used to relying on other people's writing for basic information.  But here I had to, for though I have spent a fair amount of time paying attention to local food and agriculture in various parts of southeast Asia, I still have huge gaps.  The trick was to find an organisation that felt comfortable and clear, and then to feel confident enough about what I  was saying.  And the other trick was to make the entry readable rather than stiff and didactic.  Roger Owen gave it a deft little edit, and now it's done and I am relieved!  He and Sri Owen have taken on a huge task in editing the Companion.  We are now all eager to see it published... I think in 2010.

Made crackers, and non-shmura (= not kosher for Passover) matzo with Dawnthebaker yesterday afternoon.  They're all crisp now and ready to be delivered to good friends, for their First Night seder on Wednesday.  Rolling out the doughs and cutting them into crackers, bending to the oven, to put them in and take them out - over and over, for crackers are repetitive labour - felt like bending to tradition. 

So here I am (having turned in circles in this post) back at the subjects of tradition and continuity, though with a twist.  These are far from traditional matzo as people think of them. We used whole Red Fife flour for one batch, spelt flour for another, a blend of barley and spelt for another, etc etc.. You get the idea.  We even made a spectacular sweetened-with-maple-syrup version that is aromatic with ginger.  Some will be offended by the novelty; others will enjoy exploring new possibilities for an ancient tradition.  And that's the idea, right?