Sunday, June 26, 2011


This is the first sunny morning for a week I think, maybe more. The birds are singing with pleasure. I feel like June has mostly slipped away in the clouds and rain, instead of sparkling and blooming as it usually does. Egads, here it is already the 26th!

The twenty-fourth of June is "Midsummer" in English tradition and St Jean-Baptiste, the fete nationale in Quebec. It's a day for bonfires and dancing, the solstice-season celebration, just as Saturnalia-turned-Christmas was/is the date to celebrate the returning sun at winter solstice time.

That urge to make a festival and let go cares at these significant turning points in the year is deeply embedded. And so maybe that's why this year we decided to have a dancing party on the 24th. What a great thing, to be able to dance and play with the doors open to the long-bright evening sky, voices soft in the summer air, the lush green of the garden a generous backdrop, enwrapping everyone in the oasis that is our small back yard.

Some people are picky about the music they'll dance to, while others dance to whatever is on.... And it doesn't matter. In fact, when the music's on and I'm dancing, not much else matters: I'm in the bubble and high of moving and feeling free of care and any thought really. I forgot that I'd had hurt in my left foot, I let go of worries about the edits I need to do on the Burma book, and all those others nagging things that can make me bog down and lose track of the big picture. High on endorphins? High on summer?

Maybe the joy of dancing is that we retrieve our freedom. It's freedom in movement, freedom through movement. Young E, now a few months past her fifth birthday, sure felt that freedom. She danced on her own and with others on the wide open floor, and instead of tiring, seemed to get more and more composed and happy, energised in the best way.

There were summer flavours to sustain us, as well as the music. The stars were the snap peas that Brenda brought down from her CSA farm in Grey County. She'd picked them that morning. We put out a huge bowl of them, raw and brilliant green, de-stringed but otherwise as nature (and Brenda!) grew them. They vanished. Other treats were two different boxes of home-made cookies; mountains of organic grapes, red and green ones (OK not local, but a great refresher after a stint of sweaty dancing!); a brilliant hummous topped with pesto; a creamy lush guacamole; three sauces from Burma, such taste hits; and more that I can't remember. Evelyn's Crackers, and lots of sticky rice - white with a little black mixed in for texture- were the backbone that held it all together.

People drink water when they dance, and yes wine or beer, but they're not pouring it back, so the gaiety doesn't get loutish or stupid, or morose! We had six young people sleeping over on Friday night... When I headed to bed at 3.30 most of them were still up and chatting in that comfortable post-party way, reluctant to lose the intimacy of the night. But as I drifted off I heard the first birds chirping: it was already time for the pre-dawn lightening of the sky.

It reminded me of a time in northern Finland long ago when, camped by a lake, a friend and I stayed up through the night to photograph the midnight sun as it made its circuit. It dipped north in the "nighttime" hours but never went below the horizon. The sounds of the forest went on without a pause. When summer is short and winter is dark, there's not a moment to waste.

If that's a metaphor for life, then engaging with it and enjoying what we have in the way of health and friends and meaningful obligations, while we have them, is what the dance of life is all about. We don't need dancing shoes! It just takes an awareness that the music's playing and the invitation is ours to accept...

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


We've crossed that huge marker, the summer solstice, so now the long days start getting shorter. I'm not ready for this! Meantime all is green and growing, from the wall of ivy out back to the clematis, now starting into rich purple bloom (a hardy jackmanii that rewards each year; I keep saying I'll plant a white one, or another more exotic, to keep this one company, and have not yet managed to).

Last weekend I travelled to New York City with friends for a weekend of no work, just play. We saw a couple of shows, something I've never done there. That part of town, Times Square/Broadway, is another world, with all of us out-of-towners and also the bridge and tunnel people, all lining up outside theaters, mostly patiently. On Friday night we were at a musical, the revival of the 1934 Cole Porter musical "Anything Goes". I hadn't really been looking forward to it, for musicals aren't my favorite thing. And how wrong i was in my dim expectations. It was wonderful, brilliant words and sharp acting and staging, a real show. The next night we saw an entirely different kind of performance, "The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo". It was at the very cosy and old-style charming Richard Rogers Theater. I still haven't read reviews, but i'm told that some love it and some hate it. I thought the acting and the conception and staging were all terrific, until the last fifteen minutes or so, when instead of quiet thoughtfulness we got bombast from the tiger (played by Robin Williams, who otherwise did NOT overact or upstage the others). The cast was so strong, a great lesson in ensemble acting. I feel lucky to have seen it.

Apart from the shows, we also spent time walking along the newly extended High Line, so well done in design and execution. And I got back to see the McQueen exhibit at the Met, and had another visit with the Stella paint stick on linen black and white "drawings", so intense in their huge spaces and their interaction.

Coming back to the day-to-day here took some adjustment. I'm now well launched into my history section for the back of the Burma book. It's a kind of integrated bibliography and history, and so far so good. And with help from a friend I am getting to the retesting of some recipes that need another tweak, or another check and fine-tuning. This evening we're doing two with pork belly, which in Asia is generally called, in whatever language "three-layer pork", a more attractive name than pork belly, I always think. The other test is a vegetable curry alternate. The original is made with pumpkin, but I also want to check out using sweet potato instead, for it's often more available in North America than pumpkin. The pumpkin version is delish. In ten minutes I'll taste the sweet potato curry and see how it does (there's tamarind in there as a balance to the sweetness of the vegetable).

I hope you're able to be out in the long evenings these days, enjoying the lingering brightness in the sky, and dreaming of the possible and the impossible.... that's my ambition these days.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


It's the night before full moon, clear and cool for mid-June. I was at a fairly hot discussion about Kensington Market, then bicycled down to King Street to hear an open air free concert, part of Luminato. I caught the second act, Yemen Blues, a mixed bag of people from israel and elsewhere singing in Arabic, with some modern flash and flare and some feeling more anchored. Ran into friends there and felt lucky: music. friends, choices.

Don't know why I'm telling you this except that I just came across the little question thing put out by the OECD, where you rank the level of importance you attach to health, education etc, and it tells you which countries you want to live in.

Basically it comes down to Australia, Canada, Sweden, etc. These are underpopulated places where the environment is not yet completely degraded and there's reasonable health care and public education. It made me realise how few places there are where people can be taken care of in their hour of need or just encouraged to realise their full potential. hmm

I had a chance to talk to an old friend this evening, one of the people I ran into at Yemen Blues. (By the way, there was a nice big crowd, and some dancing and general body-happiness. I found the lead guy a bit forced and over the top, but if I listened rather than looking at him I was fine. Great percussion, and a viola and cello player as well as trumpet and trombone and various lute/guitar relatives.) One of the things she said was that she's been reading a lot of non-fiction for a number of years and has just started back into fiction.

I am the same way (apart from thrillers on airplanes etc). I wonder whether our pattern has been shaped by the publishing industry or has shaped itself independently. In any case, I am interested to watch myself go after novels. I just finished the amazing 1000 autumns of Jacob de Zoet and have started on David Mitchell's Nine Dreams or whatever it's called. He is extraordinary. I am thrilled to have the rest of his writing lying ahead, like riches in the larder before Christmas holidays. I read Camilla Gibb's first book the other day at one swallow, so amazing. Now to read her latest, set in Vietnam. More riches!

What are you reading these days? Do you find yourself with less reading time, or less attentiveness for a book, in this era of online jumping around and consuming of bits and pieces, rather than long sustained works?

Perhaps it's just as well to have books lined up, for I seem to have some kind of injury in my left foot. I'm phrasing it vaguely because the problem shifts a little and feels ephemeral, except when it most definitely feels like a serious and unavoidable problem. I will stop running for a week and also try to see a sports-medicine doc and hope I can get a handle on what it is. But in fact what I really want is to figure out how to get running again with no problem. Argh!

Every sign of aging or unwellness has to start with something, I do know that. But I can't accept that this is some kind of sudden onset arthritis in my ankle...I will keep you posted.

Meanwhile I should report to you on the delish fresh lake trout I had from Akawenzie's (they sell at Wychwood market). It was a long wide fillet, so it went over a small charcoal fire. I had put on some nutritional yeast, as recommended by Potz, and a little olive oil and salt: that's all. In ten minutes the fish was firm-textured, and the shallots I put on at the same time were done through, softened and sweet.

Food has been pretty basic around here for awhile, I admit. I do make the odd skillet cake, and my breakfast is plain leftover rice with fried dandelion greens and garlic chives, all from the back garden, together with a fried egg.

All the above was written late at night on the 14th. Now it's bright sunshine on the 15th, with the fat full moon due to rise in a few hours. There's a full eclipse of the moon in Africa and the MEditerranean, but it won't reach us here in North America we're told. And the other thing we're looking forward to this evening is the arrival of old friends whom we haven't seen for ages, a father and daughter. She is almost fourteen, and we last saw her in Kovalam near the southern tip of India, when we all danced our way into the year 2000. YEs, she was two and a half, and dancing at midnight. ANd so were DOm and TAshi. Now all of them are tall and have taken full shape as people. I love this anticipation of their arrival!

News on the foot front: I got seen by my great doc today and it looks like my arch has sagged on my left foot. Very strange. But with extremely high arches I am at risk. It does hurt, but not always. I think I'm heading into orthotics or other kinds of under-foot support. I just want to be able to run and not feel like I'm doing myself further injury.

Compared to a friend who has agonising pain from her herniated disk, this is nothing. I am grateful, even as I whine and worry, to have just this to trouble me.

Happy mid-June everyone, and enjoy the light of the generous moon tonight.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Surfacing from a deep sleep this morning I slowly came into the remembrance that there's a freeing-up of life that's happened. And why? Because yesterday I carried the manuscript of RIVERS OF FLAVOR, the Burma book I've been working on for two years, to the fedEx office and sent it off to New York City and Ann Bramson's desk at Artisan. I feel lightened, for sure. But I also had a slight shakiness yesterday, almost a psychological equivalent of the shaking-legs-after-a-big-effort feeling. That has now gone. And the feeling of "should" and "ought to" which is necessary for getting things done, but can be oppressive, we can all agree, has lifted for now.

It's Saturday morning. I'm in bicycling shorts and heading out to Brickworks Market on my bicycle. The day will unfold as it unfolds. And I will try not to think "I should" about anything!

On the other hand lurking in the shadows is a list of "should"s, starting with the need to take hold of my office and indeed the whole house. I'm talking about cleaning and tidying up and organising. These fits come upon us at turning points, don't you think? And there are more things to do for the book. There is some recipe retesting, but that's easy and unpressured.

Bigger things still: I have the Glossary to do. It might seem like a dictionary-writing kind of chore, but I enjoy it. It's a chance to pull threads of information together and to give the book a solid factual anchor. I also have a back section to write which I am calling Burma Over Time. It's a bit of a chronology/history that incorporates references to the writings of others: historians, memoirists, travel writers, from earlier times and from the present. I want the book to have a political and historical context, but I don't want the brilliant food culture of Burma to be burdened by the politics. That's why it's going at the back.

And the last and most fun part I have left to do is the photographs. Photos are so important to me. Why aren't there any in this blog? I can hear you wondering. Well I think they're wonderful, and give us windows into other places and people and dreams and ideas. But sometimes mixing photos and text, interrupting text with photos is what I mean, does both a disservice.

I do love photos with captions. You can get lost in the image, or read the captions, or both, but there's a balance, and they are meant to work together in a complementary way. It's rare for the same thing to work with text.

Photos are attention grabbers. The steady processing-ideas kind of attention that is needed to engage with writing is shoved aside by the immediacy of apprehension that we have when our eyes alight on a photograph. We see and feel it, and then perhaps we also start to conceptualise about it and engage with deeper more continuous reflective thought, but the first hit, if I can call it that, lies outside the steadiness of reflective thought, for sure, and pushes it aside.

I hadn't thought I'd be writing about this photogrpahy-writing connection and disconnection today. It's just arisen as I contemplate the process of organising my Burma images in a digital data base, and then pulling those that I want to submit for the book.

You might wonder about why then I think photos will work in the Burma book. Well there, as with Hot Sour Salty Sweet and the other four-colour books I've done, the text is in pieces, so text and photos work with each other, like an assemblage of colours and patterns in a quilt.

But in a longer piece of writing I do believe that photos are a disruption. The exception I think proves the rule. That exception is Sebald's work. In his books there are small un-pushy black and white images occasionally. Because they are not road-hog photos, not attention-grabbers, but instead quiet, they don't shout out in the text, and instead are there to be discovered. They're also integral to the text, a complement to what he is writing about; instead of taking us away, they take us more deeply into the thoughts and reflections he is pulling us into. He was a genius...

It would be interesting to write a book and include photos, spectacular attention-getting photos, but instead of interleaving them, to have the writing run continuously for the first half, the photos for the second. Or it could be the other way around. The order will have an impact, but it doesn't really matter I think. The important thing is that the two ways of seeing and engaging not interrupt each other. Once you've read the book, you engage with the images, or the other way around. AFter you've done both, they can reverberate with each other. hmm

Have you come across any books that have been designed this way?

The sky is overcast, the birds are singing, and it's time to have a long drink and then head out on my bicycle. After all, it's the first day of the rest of my life!

Sunday, June 5, 2011


It's Sunday night, dark and with the moon almost set. I've somehow lost a few hours. No I'm not hallucinating. We had supper, I did some rereading of my Burma travel journals, just checking this and that as I head into my final week of editing the Burma manuscript. And then sleep overcame me. Yes yes, perhaps it was the tedium of deciphering my own handwriting! Whatever!

Over two hours later I resurfaced, in that state of post-deep sleep paralysis that meant it took me another half hour to get off the sofa. Whew! I think I have to treat this as a second morning. I won't head out for a run (had a wonderful one this morning, long and easy) but I will try to knock some chores off my to-do list with my sort-of morning energy.

This weekend has already been productive. The big thing? yesterday I printed out a final draft of the Burma manuscript so a friend could read it through. This will be my last pass through and tidy up, and then off it goes... I now have a working title, by the way: RIVERS OF FLAVOR: RECIPES AND TRAVELLER'S TALES FROM BURMA

How does that look to you?

Getting that far ahead meant that I could at last do a little more in the garden. I have talked here about my plan to plant tomatoes in bags of soil, because of the blight problem in the garden soil. Now that's done, and we'll see how they do. It's not an attractive arrangement, for sure. The bags are all along the wall of the house in the side yard, so they won't get as much sun as plants do in the back, but the wall will hold in warmth and hopefully lengthen their season.; it should also give them some support. The other plants that I bought last week in Grey County are all planted: many kinds of chiles and basil and some cumin too, and after the heavy rains mid-week, they are looking better than perky and starting to grow.

Meantime on the flower side of the garden the irises are in full glorious bloom and the columbines too, lots of shade of blue and purple and all the in-betweens. Then late this afternoon the first peonies came out, creamy white edged with pink. A fab week for flowers...

Just started reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It's quite amazing. Part of my mind's eye is living in Japan, with the motley Dutch trading community on an island off Nagasaki in 1799. Maybe that's what left me feeling dazed and needing sleep after supper. Hmm It could also be late payment for sleep deficit caused by the adrenalin of getting near the finish with the book. I have been pumped, for sure, unable to sleep more than five hours solidly each night. Not good!

I want to send a map in with the Burma manuscript. It's always good to be able to find where you are on a map, when reading about a new place. At least that's how I am. Do you feel the same way? A map makes it real somehow. Yes photos help, but the map is essential. That's next on my to-do list. It will have major rivers and cities and towns that are mentioned in the book. I'm using mostly the older names: Burma (not Myanmar) and Rangoon, not Yangon, for example.

Speaking of photos, I'm soon going to be able to (and I need to) start working on organising my digital photos, over two years' worth. I'm ashamed that I haven't done it until now, you're right. It's a big project and I knew it could side-track me, so I've left it for after I submit the manuscript. I've already got a list of some of the photos I like best, but they all need organising, using Lightbox. First I need to buy the program, then learn to use it. These transitions into new tech or new programs can be scary, of course, but since the pressure of the photos has grown so huge, I am not worried, just desperate to get started.

Meantime summer will be blooming and beautiful outside while I am insidel looking at this computer screen for hours. But at least the windows will be open, the fresh air pouring in, and the streets lively with summer ease.

Bring it on!